One way or another, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi continues to haunt the nation, a classic example of what the Czech novelist Milan Kundera described as a struggle of memory against forgetting. Those who are on the side of memory have a new weapon now in journalist Manoj Mitta’s recently released book, The Fiction of Fact-finding; Modi and Godhra.
It’s a surprise to discover the ghost of Gandhi surface in a book which exposes, rather effectively, the sham of a probe that the Supreme Court-monitored Special Investigation Team (SIT) conducted into the Gujarat riots of 2002. It was on the basis of the SIT’s probe that a lower court in Ahmedabad gave BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi a clean chit in having conspired to fan the Gujarat carnage.
Yet, what is unknown to most is that the Gujarat probe is connected to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi through former CBI director RK Raghavan, who was the SIT chairman and, before it, in 1991, was responsible for security at Sriperumbudur, where the former prime minister was blown to death.
Accessing affidavits and depositions before the JS Verma Commission that probed the security lapses at Sriperumbudur, Mitta has reconstructed the Gandhi assassination case in the chapter, When the Investigator Himself Is Indicted. From it, an unmistakable miasma of conspiracy is likely to assault you. It tells you of how Gandhi’s security was compromised, a seemingly bogus theory that Raghavan mooted to defend himself, and an instance of tampering with a crucial piece of evidence.
Cut to Sriperumbudur, May 21, 1991:
At 10.10 pm, Rajiv Gandhi arrived at the venue and began to walk through the ‘sterile zone’ – a sanitized area into which are allowed those who have security clearance – towards the stage. In the sterile zone were two separate queues of men and women waiting to offer their salutations to Gandhi. Raghavan’s affidavit to the Verma Commission claimed he was trailing 10 feet behind Gandhi, keeping an “overview” of him and “his immediate surroundings”.
After interacting with the crowds in the general enclosure, Gandhi turned to the left of the red carpet in the sterile zone, to meet those waiting in queues. “After presenting their towels, the first two persons in the line-up were trying to follow the VIP,” Raghavan said. “I pushed them away.” It was then that Raghavan “turned around for a few moments to order a police officer standing close by to rearrange the convoy for the return journey” of Gandhi.
Raghavan did not spell out the seconds or minutes that comprised “a few moments”. But Manoj Mitta, the author of The Fiction, proves that Raghavan turned around from Gandhi for a “wee bit longer than the ‘few moments’” This he does through the timeline that DR Kaarthikeyan, who headed the CBI team that investigated the murder of Gandhi, furnished in his 2004 book, Triumph of Truth.
According to Kaarthikeyan, Gandhi first met the queue of 20 men and then a few party workers in the women queue before coming face-to-face with a teenager, Kokila, who recited a poem to him. It was at this point the LTTE suicide bomber, Dhanu, exploded herself and killed Gandhi. Kaarthikeyan estimated that about 10 minutes passed between Gandhi stepping out of his car and the triggering of the human bomb. “Thus, a good part of what happened to Rajiv Gandhi during the ten minutes he was alive at Sriperumbudur venue was apparently missed by Raghavan, thanks to his diversion from the task at hand,” observes Mitta sarcastically.
Since Raghavan had “turned around”, he couldn’t consequently vouch for how Dhanu sneaked close to Gandhi. Nevertheless, in his affidavit to the Verma Commission, he cited, in parenthesis, a woman sub-inspector, E. Anusuya, to claim: “… I learnt later from Woman SI Anasuya, the VIP (Gandhi) beckoned to the crowd behind the rostrum that was rushing towards him and was being held back by the police cordon. The VIP signalled to the police to allow them to come near him.” Not only did the women in the rushing throng mob Gandhi, Raghavan’s affidavit would have us believe that Gandhi asked Anusuya to “relax” as she tried to push the invaders of the sterile zone away.
In other words, Raghavan was blaming Gandhi for his own assassination, accusing him of having committed the fatal error of having beckoned the crowd to come near him.
But think, do suicide bombers undertake missions on the assumption that there would be a security lapse? Not surprisingly, Mitta notes, “Dhanu could apparently pull off the assassination because of the unforeseen help she had received from her target.”
The Verma Commission rejected Raghavan’s beckoning theory (which is what Gandhi gesturing at the crowds to come near him is called in the book) on three counts. One, the lighting around the dais was too inadequate, and the people around Gandhi were so close to him that he could not possibly have seen through them the excited gaggle of people 60 feet away, behind the rostrum, thus ruling out the possibility of him beckoning them.
Two, the security person standing closest to Gandhi was SP Mathur, a deputy inspector general of police. Injured in the blast, Mathur told the Verma Commission that he “did not see Rajiv Gandhi beckon to any member of the public.” Further, he could not recall any policemen or policewomen pushing back the people from mobbing Gandhi.
Third, and more significantly, photographs recovered from the camera of Haribabu, a deceased member of the LTTE assassin squad, suggested a narrative contrary to Raghavan’s. In fact, the first of the photographs, clicked by Haribabu an hour before Gandhi arrived at the venue, showed Dhanu being present in the sterile zone; the ninth in the series depicted her standing next to Kokila, who read a poem to Gandhi, thus countering the argument that a gaggle of people had gate-crashed into the sterile zone.
On the basis of the pictorial evidence, the Verma Commission concluded that Dhanu could not have been there unless “her entry to that place was either expressly permitted or remained unobstructed for any reason (italics mine).”
The mysterious video
But wait, the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case wasn’t just about concocting bizarre theories. It was also about tampering with a video film shot at the venue on the night of May 21, 1991. This video film was seen by then Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief MK Narayanan, who went on to write on May 22 a secret note to Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar informing that the IB was trying to identify ‘the lady’ – the identity of Dhanu hadn’t yet been discovered – and determine whether she had been present in the sterile zone before Gandhi’s arrival at the venue.
Apart from other clues, Narayanan’s antennae went up because the lady was wearing salwar-kameez, “an unusual dress for this part” (of the country). The spy master suspected she wore this dress to conceal the bomb on her body. In the note to Chandra Shekhar, Narayanan said, “Video pictures of this part of the meeting are presently being scanned to try and IDENTIFY THE LADY.”
“This suggested,” writes Mitta, “that the video segment, shot around the time of Haribabu’s ninth photograph, captured the last few seconds of Dhanu and Rajiv Gandhi. Thus, it had the potential of nailing or validating Raghavan’s beckoning theory.” Yet, astonishingly, when the video was screened before the Verma Commission, the crucial segment covering Gandhi’s arrival at the venue and the bomb blast was discovered to have gone blank.
Nevertheless, there was still a question to determine: was ‘the lady’ indeed Dhanu, more so as the video film had gone blank? In the trial court in Madras, the CBI produced one Selvam, who had been associated with the shooting of the video. He claimed to have seen Dhanu in the video during the replays of it the following day (May 22) in the house of studio-owner Sambaiah. Mitta quotes Selvam telling the trial court, “… the video cassette showed Dhanu ‘sneaking into the ladies crowd which surrounded Gandhi and came closer to him.” He also speculated that the part showing Dhanu had got blurred because of “repeated playing.”
So then, are we to assume that Raghavan’s beckoning theory may have had a basis, however thin?
Not really, for there was a curious anomaly in Selvam’s deposition. He said the police seized the video on the morning of May 23. However, Narayanan’s secret letter showed the IB had already seen the footage and even sent it for scanning on May 22 to identify the human-bomb. This means the video film was already in the IB’s custody on May 22 and couldn’t have been seized on May 23, as Selvam told the court.
To the Commission, Kaarthikeyan said the video had been sent to foreign experts to ascertain whether parts of it had been obliterated or tampered with. The outcome of the probe into the cassette tape was never revealed. Nor was Narayanan summoned to the Commission to explain the secret note to Chandra Shekhar. “… the Commission made out that the apparent loss of those images in IB’s custody might be related more to the conspiracy behind the murder than to the security lapses that had led to it,” Mitta writes. It was the latter which was the Verma Commission’s brief.
However, the Verma Commission observed that “the theory of beckoning is quite improbable.” This prompts Mitta to note, “In other words, Justice Verma disbelieved Raghavan’s testimony on the critical issue of how exactly Dhanu had accessed Rajiv Gandhi. Raghavan got away with it because the report, strangely enough, did not ascribe the beckoning theory to him, personally.” Nevertheless, Raghavan’s survived the indictment because the Commission left it to the Tamil Nadu government to take suitable action against him and two others. Ultimately, all of them were let off. (Incidentally, Justice Verma refused to speak to Mitta “about his opacity” in dealing with Raghavan’s theory.)
In May 1999, when the Supreme Court upheld the trial court findings that the sterile zone had been compromised and showed the Tamil Nadu police in a poor light, Raghavan had already become the director of the CBI, the post to which the Vajpayee government had elevated him. Isn’t it strange that the man who benefitted from the BJP was drafted to lead the probe against Modi.
Cut to Feb 19, 2014
On this day, RK Raghavan wrote an engaging piece in The Hindu titled, Appointments and Disappointments, detailing the menace of political interference in the organisation he had once headed. Ironically, judging from Mitta’s book, this title is an apt description of the sentiments Raghavan engendered, first, as the security in-charge at Sriperumbudur and, subsequently, as the chairman of SIT that probed Modi.
Might not the venerable Hindu newspaper hand over to Raghavan a copy of The Fiction of Fact-finding, and request him to rebut the grave charges levelled against him in it?
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