16th May 1999
Rajiv murder case is not closed
By Vaijanthi Prakash, our correspondent in New Delhi
Prabhakaran remains a wanted and convicted man
The last word has not been spoken in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. The long arm of Indian law is still stretched out to book Tiger chieftain Velupillai Prabhakaran, who, along with his intelligence chief, Pottu Amman, and the head of the women's' wing, Akhila, is a "proclaimed offender" in this case. He is also the accused number one in a charge sheet which was kept in abeyance till his capture. There is also a pending request to the Sri Lankan government for his extradition, a prospect which Prabhakaran and Colombo cannot altogether brush aside as being improbable.
Politically too, assassination and the judgments of the trial court and the Supreme Court could make waves in India, especially because an acrimonious general election is due in September. The battle lines for the polls seems to be taking a pro-LTTE vs. anti-LTTE dimension. The pro-LTTE groups are lined up behind the BJP, and the anti-LTTE groups are with the Congress led by Rajiv's widow, Sonia. The BJP and the Congress are the main contenders for the seat of power in New Delhi. Both sides are likely to dig into the innuendo-ridden report of the Jain Commission on the "larger conspiracy" to kill Rajiv Gandhi and wash much dirty linen in public.
Clearing the misconception that the case was closed with the apex court's verdict, Prosecution counsel, Jacob Reginald Daniel said that Tuesday's verdict pertained only to the 26 who could be apprehended and produced before the trial court.
Since Prabhakaran, Pottu Amman and Akhila could not be apprehended and 12 others committed suicide, the case was spilt into two with one charge sheet naming the 26 in hand and another naming Prabhakaran, Pottu Amman and Akhila. It was decided to go ahead with the trial of the 26 without waiting for the trio to be produced. This is how Nalini, who was only a facilitator, albeit a key one, became the accused number one in this landmark case, the first involving a foreign terrorist group.
Daniel also corrected another misconception that the 19 who were set free had been "acquitted" of the charge of conspiring to kill Rajiv. He contended that the Supreme Court had vindicated the prosecution's stand that it was the LTTE headed by Prabhakaran, which had conspired to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi. Except one person, S Shanmugavadivelu, alias Thambi Anna, none of the rest of the 26 who stood trial were "acquitted" of the charge of conspiracy to kill the Indian leader. All that the court has done was to reduce the death sentence to life imprisonment in the case of three, and release the rest, as they had served about eight years already. The punishment for a conspiracy of this kind could vary from a death sentence to a period of imprisonment. Reduction of the sentence did not amount to exoneration, Daniel said.
On the conspiracy angle, including the critical role of the LTTE top brass, the prosecution's case was upheld, Daniel said. He referred to trial judge V. Navaneetham's remark in his judgement of Jan 28, 1998, that going by the oral and documentary evidence, the conspiracy to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi was hatched by the LTTE supremo V Prabhakaran. He had said that the assassination was in pursuance of a diabolical plot, carefully conceived and executed by a highly organized foreign terrorist organization, the LTTE. This was not disputed by the Supreme Court.
The charge sheet had evidence of Prabhakaran's wanting to take revenge on Rajiv Gandhi for signing the Indo-Sri Lanka accord in 1987 behind his back. He saw the IPKF as a yoke which was holding him back from striving for an independent Eelam and waged war against it and accused it of committing atrocities. Fearing Rajiv's return to power in the 1991 election, Prabahakaran moved to kill him. In Sept. 1990 the LTTE sent killer squad facilitators Robert Payas Santhi Selvalakshmi, Vijayan and Jayakumar to India by boat disguised as refugees. Murugan, a hard core LTTEr, came in early 1991. The charge sheet has said that four Indians, Ravichandran, Perarivalan, Subha Sundaram, and Suseendran went to Jaffna to meet Prabhakaran and Pottu Amman to discuss plans for the assassination.
The same year, Ravichandran went to Jaffna thrice to get trained. Dec.1990 was important in as much as this was when the actual assassination squad, headed by the one-eyed Sivarasan, came to Tamil Nadu by boat from Jaffna. The investigators were able to intercept or seize letters on the mission addressed to Prabhakaran, Pottu Amman and Akhila.
Like Murugan alias Sriharan, Santhan alias Chinna Santhan, was also a hard core LTTE man. He had been part of an earlier LTTE operation in Tamil Nadu, the assassination of EPRLF General Secretary K Padamanabha and his chief lieutenants on June 20, 1990. Sankar alias Koneswaran, another LTTE militant, was arrested on June 7, 1991 at the Vedaranyam beach waiting for a boat to take him to Jaffna. A beat constable who questioned him and searched his person recovered a vital clue, the Chennai address of Nalini, police were already on the lookout for the one-eyed Sivarasan, Subha and Nalini, the trio who formed the back-up for the suicide bomber Dhanu. Subha and Dhanu belonged to the women's cadre of the LTTE and Sivarasan was the LTTE's professional hitman. He has already done a major job for Prabhakaran in Tamil Nadu by leading the murderous attack on the EPRLF's top brass in Chennai.
Sivarasan and Subha committed suicide when the police laid a siege to their hideout in Konnanakuntee near Bangalore on August 18, 1991. Other hardcore LTTErs who committed suicide in the typical LTTE fashion to avoid falling into the hands of the police, were Dixon and Gundu Santhan, the chief organizers of LTTE activities in Tamil Nadu. Though the LTTE had not owned the killing of Rajiv, it did organize celebrations in Jaffna. And to drum up support for the accused, it organized a committee under the headship of its chief spokesman in Tamil Nadu, P. Nedumaran. Defence Counsel, S. Dorai Swamy, travelled abroad to collect Indian Rupees one crore (16 million Sri Lankan rupees). A vocal LTTE supporter, George Fernandes was the patron of this fund-raising committee till he became Defence Minister in the BJP led government in March 1998.
While sentencing all the 26 on trial to death, Justice V Navaneetham said that the extreme penalty was being awarded to deter Indians from associating with terrorist groups to commit "diabolical and heinous" crimes.
D.R Karthikeyan, the head of the Special Investigating Team said that the judgment proved that India was not a "soft state" for terrorist groups to play around with. "Like the armed forces, the judiciary too has shown that it can defend the country", he added. Nevertheless, sentencing all the 26 to death was not welcomed because not all of them were involved to the same extent. Indeed, the most important conspirators, including the killer Dhanu, Sivarasan, Subha and Gundu Santhan, were dead. Prabhakaran, Pottu Amman and Akhila, the real kingpins, could not be apprehended. S. Dorai Swamy, the chief defence counsel, conceded that the LTTE has done it and granted that the police has done a good job, but he emphatically asserted that the persons caught were marginal to the whole enterprise who certainly did not deserve the death sentence.
The Supreme Court judgment had certainly restored the balance and confirmed the death sentence only in respect of four of the 26. Only Nalini, Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan (who made the belt bomb) were to be sent to the gallows. Jayakumar, Robert Payas and Ravichandran, were to serve a life term. Eighteen were set free as they had already served eight years and one, Thambi Anna, was acquitted and released. While fully accepting that the accused were part of an LTTE conspiracy, the Indian apex Court did not accept the prosecution's case that the killing of Rajiv was a terrorist act calculated to "over-awe the government and strike terror in the country." The target was an individual though the "murder of a former Prime Minister for what he did in the interest of the country was an act of exceptional depravity," the three man bench said.
Political fall out
The LTTE issue has been playing a significant part in Indian politics even after the IPKF was withdrawn in March 1990 and India adopted a hands off policy vis-a-vis Sri Lanka and its ethnic problem. The killing of Rajiv Gandhi led to the dismissal of the DMK government in Tamil Nadu and the ascendancy of Jayalalitha. In 1996, the Jain Commission, which went into the "larger conspiracy" behind the assassination, not only delayed the trial process inordinately, but stirred a political hornets nest by pointing an accusing finger at the DMK. The Congress, which was itching to bring down the I.K. Gujral government at the Centre, demanded the ouster of the DMK ministers of the coalition government. Gujral refused to oblige and the Congress scuttled the government by withdrawing support.
Newspaper edits hope that the Supreme Court judgement will at long last put an end to speculation about who was behind the assassination because the highest court in the land has accepted the LTTE's culpability. They also hope that the political parties will not use the Rajiv assassination case for partisan purposes. But sadly, there are already moves to rake up the issue again. There are press reports saying that Sonia Gandhi and her daughter Priyanka, will begin the Congress party's election campaign in Sriperumbudur, 40 kms from Chennai where Rajiv was assassinated. Congress leader, Pranab Mukerji, has said that the party is "disappointed" by the supreme Court's watering down the trial court's verdict.
With the congress on the verge of striking an alliance with Jayalalitha's AIADMK, and pro-LTTE parties like the PMK and MDMK lining up behind the DMK, the judgement will be acrimoniously debated on electoral platforms. As the BJP is with the DMK led alliance, and George Fernandes is an ally of the BJP, the Congress is going to dub the BJP a pro-LTTE party, giving succour and shelter to acolytes of Rajiv's killers. Jayalalitha ally and stormy petrel, subramamian Swamy, has already begun embarrassing the BJP government by demanding that it press Sri Lanka to extradite Prabhakaran to face trial in the yet unfinished Rajiv case.
The PMK and MDMK will argue that the Supreme Court has given a non-political judgement setting right a trial court verdict was "politically motivated". The trial court's verdict was timed to help the Congress in the 1998 elections it is alleged. But the authors of this theory conveniently forget that the Congress was not in power in January 1998 to influence the court! One of the accused set free, Ranganath, has already said publicly that the man behind the assassination was "Godfather" Chandraswami, the high flying Hindu ascetic and friend of Subramanian Swamy's, who allegedly vowed to kill Rajiv. It was Chandraswami who has helped the LTTE with the finances for the assassination, Ranganath said. This is bound to revive interest in the Jain Commission's report which points to the possible involvement of Chandraswami, and casts aspersions on a number of the godman's friends including former Congress Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao. Ranganath, who gave shelter to Sivarasan and Subha in Bangalore, said that he wanted to "tell all" about the funding of the LTTE's project to kill Rajiv, but he was "silenced" by the investigating officers. Ranganath has threatened to testify before the Multi-Disciplinary Monitoring Committee of the Central Bureau of Investigation set up to go further into the findings of the Jain Commission. Meanwhile, the BJP"s General Secretary, Venkaiah Naidu, asked the government to investigate the charges made by Ranganath.
The pro-LTTE parties, now firmly lined up behind the BJP, may try to portray the release of the 19 accused as an exoneration of the LTTE. The Supreme Court's saying that the killing of Rajiv was not a "terrorist act" but only a mark of "depravity" would be used to portray the LTTE as a Tamil nationalist or a liberation movement.
They will also try to trigger a sympathy wave based on the experience of the 19 held in prison for eight years only for a marginal involvement. Pro-LTTE elements in Tamil Nadu are already planning to create a pan-Tamil feeling making use of this issue. An organization is planning to collect one lakh signatures on an appeal for a Presidential pardon for those still in jail. An appeal to the court for a revision of the death sentence is also on the cards. Therefore, it will be a long time before the last word is heard on the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
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