Severed head of the LTTE Sri Lankan Tamil Terrorist who blew up Rajiv Gandhi
Four years after the brutal assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, the
crack special investigation team (SIT) has managed to edge considerably closer to
unravelling the complex plot behind the shocking crime that stunned the nation.
The exhaustive investigation process and interrogation of key suspects picked up so far have established that the plot to kill Rajiv Gandhi was first hatched in October 1990 deep in the jungles of Jaffna. The motive is now understood to have been related to the political tremors then emantaining from New Delhi. The then prime minister V.P. Singh was battling for survival following a threat by the BJP to withdraw support to his minority National Front government. Across the Palk Straits, in the forest hide-outs of Jaffna in north-eastern Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leadership met for a crucial assessment of the situation. The meeting decided that the chances of Congress (I) president Rajiv Gandhi returning to power were now almost certain. For the extremist organization struggling for a seperate homeland, Tamil Eelam, it meant a possible re-induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka and a certain crackdown of the elaborate LTTE network established in Tamil Nadu.
Even before the National Front government finally collapsed, the LTTE had made up its mind to prevent Rajiv Gandhi from regaining power even if it required the ultimate deterrent - the assassination.
By early November 1990, the V.P. Singh government was voted out and Rajiv Gandhi was virtually back in power, shooting from behind care-taker prime minister Chandra Shekhar's shoulder. The possibility of a mid-term poll loomed ever larger. The LTTE was getting desperate.
Realising that Rajiv as prime minister would be a near-impossible target, it was decided that they should strike while his security status was still that of an opposition leader and election campaigning would render him even more vulnerable. In end-November, the elusive LTTE supremo Prabhakaran, having decided on the physical elimination of Rajiv Gandhi, summoned four trusted lieutenants - Baby Subramaniyam, Murugan, Muthuraja and Shivarasan - to finalise the contours of an assassination plot. Subramaniyam and Muthuraja were summoned from Madras where they were staying at that time.
In the first week of December, Prabhakaran made his decision known to the four members of the team he had summoned. The actual details of the operation were left to them but each was assigned a specific task. Baby Subramaniyam, a prominent idealogue of the LTTE, was operating from Madras running a printing press publishing LTTE literature. His task was to prepare a back-up team that would arrange shelter for the assassins before and after the killing.
Muthuraja was asked to prepare a base in Madras to ensure proper communication facilities, couriers for messages and the smooth distribution of money for the assassins. Murugan, a key instructor and an explosive expert of the LTTE, was asked to take over the assignments from Subramaniyam and Muthuraja after their departure for Jaffna. Shivarasan, the much wanted man today, who has been labeled 'one-eyed-jack' was given the most important task - the actual assassination.
The assassination plot received further impetus with the dismissal of the DMK government led by M. Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi's government was dismissed on grounds of having encouraged the LTTE movement in the state - not entirely baseless as Karunanidhi on his campaign trail, before the assassination, portrayed the fellow Tamils' cause in Sri Lanka as just and noble.
Imposition of central rule in Tamil Nadu was a major setback for the LTTE. The decision to dissolve the DMK government - though essentially political and under tremendous pressure from the Congress (I) and the AIADMK - was taken following a series of reports filed by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) revealing the growing informal relationship between the followers of the DMK and the LTTE.
But even though the IB had established Karunanidhi's sympathy towards the LTTE and its links with the DMK, it was utterly in the dark regarding the extremist group's plan to liquidate Rajiv Gandhi. The external intelligence organization, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), was equally clueless about the existence of the plot.
Meanwhile, by the begining of 1991, the four lieutenants of Prabhakaran had already set the plan in motion. Baby Subramaniyam and Muthuraja were back in Madras. Both were engaged in the crucial first stage of the plot - identifying and recruiting local people who would eventually harbour the assassination squad. A key recruiting centre was a photo agency which had developed into an LTTE hub in Madras. Shubha News and Photo Agency was run by Shubha Sundaram who is considered to be a godfather for most of the budding photographers in Madras. Shubha's agency was visited by many Dravida Kazhagam (DK) members also. The DK, which is an extremist sibling of the DMK, has been openly sympathetic towards the LTTE.
Muthuraja and Baby Subramaniyam picked their first target - Bhagynathan - a young DK activist from Shubha's place. Bhagynathan had expressed ambitions of bringing out a political journal but lacked the financial resources. His family was heavily steeped in debt and had meagre means of support. He himself managed to earn a living by supplying stationery items to a firm where his sister, Nalini, was employed as a secretary. His mother, a nurse, was working in Kalyani Nursing Home.
The crunch came when his mother was asked to vacate the quarter provided by the nursing home authorities. The family was desperate, lack of money meant they could not afford to rent a place to live in Madras. The first recruit for the assassination plot had fallen into the LTTE's lap. Baby Subramaniyam casually mentioned to Bhagynathan that he was looking for a customer for his printing press as he was thinking of switching to another business. Bhagynathan offered to take over the press provided the price was paid in instalments. Seeing Bhagynathan falling into the trap, Baby readily agreed. He sold the press to Bhagynathan at a ridiculously low price of Rs. 5000, payable in small instalments. Baby now had also gained access to Bhagynathan's entire family which had shifted to the area where the press was located. The press premises, in any event, offered the perfect cover for a suitable hide-out. The second stage of the operation - recruiting the entire family - had begun. Baby's strategy of convincing Nalini to help her brother run the press was starting to pay off. Nalini was exposed to the LTTE literature which was then being churned out and conveyed one key message: Rajiv Gandhi was solely responsible for the
'crimes' perpetrated by the IPKF in Sri Lanka.
Nalini was easy to recruit. She was soon working on a book titled Satanic Forces and sub-titled Heinous Crimes of the Indian Peace Keeping Force. The book carried no comment from the LTTE except one innocuous message from Prabhakaran: "Work is worship". The book itself was merely a compilation of sundry news reports, photographs, cartoons and editorials published in the Indian media about the negative aspects of the IPKF in Sri Lanka and the mishandling of the situation by Rajiv Gandhi's government.
Meanwhile, second member of the recruiting team, Muthuraja, had been equally busy in Shubha Sundaram's agency. Shubha had already received a message from Prabhakaran to co-operate with Muthuraja in a secret operation of the LTTE for which recruitment of some unknown faces was necessary. Two young photographers, Ravi Shankaran and Haribabu, fitted the requirements. Even though Shubha had fired Haribabu for being inattentive, he was deeply indebted to the LTTE for the financial support they had given him for photographic assignments. Haribabu had joined a new agency, Vigneshwar Video, but was well aware that the money paid to him was much more than the normal assignment fee.
This was when Muthuraja informed Haribabu that someone who needed to be trained in photography was arriving from Jaffna and would stay with Haribabu as a paying guest. The new entrant in Haribabu's life, Balan, did much more than allow Haribabu to earn some extra money. He gradually brain-washed the young photographer into believing that Rajiv Gandhi was solely responsible for the brutality inflicted on the Sri Lankan Tamils and that his return to power would mean yet another bout of atrocities.
Back in Jaffna, Murugan was preparing to make his entry onto the stage that had been set by his two accomplices in Madras. The plot was proceeding satisfactorily and according to schedule. After a series of of meetings with Shivarasan in Jaffna, Murugan decided to send two young LTTE boys from Shivarasan's village, Jayakumaran and robert Pias, to Madras. They arrived in early February. Initially they stayed at Jayakumaran's brother-in-law Arivu Perulibalan's house at Savri Nagar Extention in Porur, a suburb of Madras. Arivu, a diploma holder in computer science, had been living in Madras since early 1990. Although a dedicated member of the LTTE, he had played no active role in its subterranean activities till he was approached by Murugan. Arivu's electronic expertise was to be of deadly significance.
Murugan entered the scene in mid-February when he arrived in Madras. His first move was to shift Pias and Jayakumaran to new accomodation with the help of Arivu who had been told about the 'special mission' without disclosing the target. Murugan's primary task was to give logistical support apart from providing sufficient financial support to all three. By shifting Pias and Jayakumaran to a new residence, he had also provided another hide-out for the team. Pias and Arivu were told to organise a fake licence for a two-wheeler.
In end-February, Muthuraja introduced Murugan to to Bhagynathan's family. By then Nalini had developed a deep sense of hatred for Rajiv Gandhi at a time when his return to power was becoming imminent. Murugan thus had no problem in finalising the third hide-out. With three safe shelters, an electronic expert in Arivu who had been asked to improvise a bomb out of grenades that could be detonated by a suicide bomber, three converts in Nalini, Padma and Bhagynathan, and a recruiter in Shubha Sundaram, the plot was in place. Murugan sent a message to Shivarasan in Jaffna asking him to come to Madras. Shivarasan arrived in the first week of March. He first stayed at Pias' house in Porur where he was given a detailed briefing on the shelters and the people who had been recruited by Muthuraja and Baby Subramaniyam.
Shivarasan's arrival in Madras completed the elaborate web spun by Prabhakaran in the jungles of Jaffna for the execution of Rajiv Gandhi. From now on, the key role in the plot would be played by Shivarasan. Everything was working to plan. Shivarasan, himself an expert on explosives, examined Arivu's design for a human bomb and pronounced it suitable. He asked Baby Subramaniyam and Muthuraja to leave for Sri Lanka as it would not be safe for them to live in India any longer. By the end of March, Muthuraja and Baby Subramaniyam left for Jaffna.
Shivarasan moved to the Bhagynathan household where he discussed the plan with Murugan, Nalini and Bhagynathan. He told them that he had somebody in mind who would act as the human-bomb. He also asked Bhagynathan to look for a photographer who could be trusted. However, the target was still kept secret. Ravi Shankaran and Haribabu, old-time friends, were then brought into the picture. Sensing that they were being involved in a specific operation of the LTTE, both realised that they had reached a point of no-return.
The next step was to prove the most fateful - Shivarasan returned to Jaffna to bring back his human-bomb. In Jaffna, he met Prabhakaran and briefed him on the progress that had taken place in Madras. Prabhakaran asked Shivarasan to make sure that they undertake dry-runs before the actual operation and ordered that the whole exercise be photographed for his viewing.
Shivarasan then selected his human bombs - Dhanu alias Gayatri and Shubha alias Shalini, two women members of the LTTE's shadow squad. Incidentally, both the girls happened to be his cousins. He was back in Madras within a week with the two girls in tow. The next step was to procure the explosives he had used to kill the EPRLF leader J. Padmanabha. With the LTTE's vast network in Tamil Nadu, obtaining the explosive was the least of the problems. Shivarasan was now all set to carry out his leader's orders - the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
In Madras, Dhanu and Shubha had been taken to Nalini's house where Murugan was awaiting them. Shivarasan kept the others - Pias, Jayakumaran and arivu - away from the planning sessions which were to follow. But in a seperate meeting, Shivarasan explained to Arivu the specifics of the bomb he required. Without disclosing the operation in detail, he asked for a bomb that could be easily hidden beneath the clothes and fitted around the waist of a female person.
Arivu got down to work and came up with an ingenious design for a belt-bomb. Six grenades could be fitted in a series on the belt. Each grenade would be made up of 80 gm of the C4 RDX (2800 splinters of 2 mm each) enclosed with in a casting of TNT. The grenades were connected in parallel with silver wires and the circuit was completed with two toggle switches, one for arming and the other triggering the bomb. The device was charged with a 9 mm battery.
After approving the bomb, Shivarasan instructed Murugan to find a tailor to stich the vest. Murugan found a local tailor and had the vest made of blue denim, a fabric heavy enough to support the one-kilo bomb. Once the vest was ready, Arivu carefully fixed the bomb onto the vest. The weapon that would reduce Rajiv Gandhi and at least 16 others to a mangled heap was now ready to be put to use. With this, Shivarasan was ready to stage the dry-runs ordered by Prabhakaran. The first dry-run took place on April 21 at the favourite spot for political rallies - Marina Beach in Madras. Marina Beach was the venue for Rajiv Gandhi's first campaign meeting in Tamil Nadu which was also addressed by the AIADMK leader Jayalalitha. The meeting was
photographed by Ravi Shankaran while Shubha Sundaram's agency took a video recording. However, the potential assassins did not attempt to get too close to the two leaders. Incidentally, Haribabu, who was present at the trial run along with Ravi Shankaran, had his first inkling that the target was going to be a politician.
The next dry-run was executed on May 12 at a meeting featuring V.P. Singh and Karunanidhi at Thiruvallur in Arkonam, 40 km away from Madras. This time, the exercise was more fruitful as Dhanu was able to touch the feet of V.P. Singh in much the same manner as she would do with Rajiv Gandhi on the fateful night of May 21. This session was also shot on video by the Shubha Photo Agency. The video film is now in possesion of the investigation team.
Following two successful rehearsals, Shivarasan now looked for the right opportunity for the actual assassination. Time was running out. The May 21 meeting at Sriperumbudur was announced two days in advance and it provided the best - and the last - opportunity. On the morning of May 20, Shivarasan reached Nalini's house with a newspaper clipping which detailed Rajiv's public meetings on May 21 ending at Sriperumbudur that night. The venue was decided.
Ravi Shankaran called Haribabu and asked hom to purchase the garland and then meet Shivarasan and others at Nalini's house on the afternoon of May 21. Haribabu then asked Ravi Shankaran to get him a camera along with a film roll. Ravi Shankaran, instead of giving Haribabu one of his own cameras, borrowed one from a friend Deepak, and gave it to Haribabu along with a Konika colour roll.
The night of May 20 was spent in a relaxed mood. The conspirators watched a film. None of the girls, particularly Dhanu, showed any sign of nervousness. Shubha tried out the denim vest on Dhanu. She also tried on the spectacles she would wear for disguise for the first time. The next day at 4.30 p.m., Nalini, Shubha, Dhanu and Shivarasan left for Parry's Corner for their rendezvous with Haribabu.
At Parry's Corner, near the main bus stand of Madras city, Haribabu was waiting with the sandalwood garland which he had bought an hour earlier from the state emporium Poompuhar. The five conspirators boarded a buss for Sriperumbudur where they reached around 8 o'clock in the evening.
All five, with Dhanu holding the garland, positioned themselves around the VIP enclosure. At one point, they were questioned by a woman sub-inspector on duty, Anushya Kumari. Haribabu said he was a press cameraman and was there to take the photograph of the girl (Dhanu) garlanding Rajiv Gandhi. The sub-inspector told them that Rajiv was coming much later and hence there was no need for them to be around so early and the photographer should go to the press enclosure. They moved away. Shubha and Nalini sat
in the crowd. Shivarasan took his position near the dais. He carried a pistol as he was the lone member of the back-up team. Dhanu and Haribabu stood close to the red carpet on which Rajiv would walk on his way to the dais.
Rajiv arrived at around 10 p.m. and was immediately surrounded by people trying to garland him. The sub-inspector, Anushya, once again tried to prevent Dhanu from getting close to Rajiv. She had almost caught hold of the assassin but for Rajiv Gandhi, who according to Anushya, said: "Let everybody get a chance". Anushya moved away - thus saving her own life. Dhanu bent down to touch Rajiv's feet. Rajiv in turn bent to lift her up. Dhanu's right finger activated the bomb.
Soon after the blast, Nalini and Shubha walked towards the bus stand where they were to meet Shivarasan who told them that Rajiv Gandhi, Dhanu and Haribabu were dead and they better make a getaway. They took an auto-rickshaw till Poonamali from where they took another to reach Shivarasan's Porur house. Shivarasan rang up Shubha Sundaram and told him that though Haribabu had died in the blast, his camera was intact and Sundaram should try and recover it.
But because of the disturbance in the city, they were confined to the house all through the day. On the night of May 21, Sundaram swung into action. He rang up the house of a photographer, T. Ramamurthy, and was told that Ramamurthy had called from the Poonamali police station to say that he was slightly injured in the blast and would take some time to reach home. Sundaram then rang up the Poonamali police station and asked Ramamurthy if he had brought the camera from Haribabu. Ramamurthy told him that was "not his job". Meanwhile, Sundaram had informed Ravi Shankaran about the necessity of recovering Haribabu's camera and the crucial film roll.
By then, the SIT had launched its massive investigation. Officials had visited the Madras General Hospital to get an eyewitness account from the victims. Anushya gave them a description of some "suspicious characters" she had seen roaming around with a photographer. By then, the photographs taken by Haribabu had been developed. Anushya's account had made them suspicious about certain characters featured in the pictures including that of the woman holding a sandalwood garland along with Shivarasan. Next day, Anushya confirmed that they were the same people she had spotted.
The next morning, the SIT visited the scene of crime where they found parts of Dhanu's dress, strips of the vest and the belt-bomb she wore with pieces of flesh attached, two toggle switches, wires used in the bomb and a half-burnt 9-volt battery. The experts carried out DNA printing of the pieces of flesh found at the spot. The flesh piece attached to the belt matched with the portion of the woman's body found. That established convincingly the theory of the assassin being a human-bomb.
Next, the bomb experts of the National Security Guards reconstructed the denim vest and part of the belt. Meanwhile, on May 25, the arrest of an LTTE member, Shankar, when intercepted, told the local police that he had been sent to India by Prabhakaran in order to kill Vardaraja Perumal who has been given refuge by the Indian Government in Bhopal.
The matter was immediately brought to the notice of the SIT in Madras. Shankar, when shown pictures taken by Haribabu, identified the kurta-pyjama clad man in the photographs as Raghuvaran, an explosive expert and a trusted lieutenant of Prabhakaran who was also involved in the killing of EPRLF leader Padmanabha. Of the several LTTE activists and symphathisers rounded up for interrogation, one Jagdishnan from Vedaraniam also identified the kurta-pyjama clad man as Raghu adding that he had travelled during the Padmanabha killing in his speedboat between Vedaraniam and Point Pedro of Jaffna.
A notebook recovered from Shankaran's possession carried a Madras telephone number with two names: Nalini and Murugan. The telephone authorities confirmed the identity of the holders of the number.
Meanwhile, a study of Padmanabha's killing revealed that the two unexploded grenades found from the spot contained C4 RDX explosives. The SIT also received a tip-off about two photographers, Shubha Sundaram and Ravi Shankaran, who were desperately looking for Haribabu's camera. Haribabu's mother, Laxmi, told the SIT that Ravi Shankaran had visited their house on May 22 morning to inquire about the camera but never told them about his death. Another friend of Haribabu, Kannan, also told the SIT to tap the phones of the two photographers. Both were put under surveillance.
The SIT officials visited Sriperumbudur again with the pictures shot by Haribabu of the crowd which was circulated among the local population. Through a painstaking process of elimination, only four or five characters were left unidentified and two of them turned out to be Shubha and Nalini.
A study of the photo album seized from Ravi Shankaran also showed Nalini along with a few others. During questioning, Ravi Shankaran told the SIT that he knew one of the characters in the photograph from his album. It turned out to be Nalini's brother, Bhagynathan.
Bhagynathan was picked up from his printing press but Nalini and Murugan managed to flee. Bhagynathan told the SIT how he came under influence of Baby Subramaniyam and about the operatives he had harboured. He identified the mysterious kurta-pyjama clad man as Shivarasan.
Working round the clock, the SIT had managed to establish the identities of the kurta-pyjama clad man, the actual assassin, her accomplices Shubha, Murugan and Nalini. Further interrogation of Bhagynathan, Shubha Sundaram and Ravi Shankaran revealed more details of the plot.
While this was going on, Murugan and Nalini were in Tirupathi where he planned to shave his head to celebrate the success of the operation. They also planned to get married. But by now, Nalini's photograph had been splashed all over the state so they gave up the idea. Presuming the coastal areas would be heavily patrolled, both of them decided to return to Madras.
They were unaware that scores of police teams were waiting for them at all the railway and bus stations in Madras. The arrest of Murugan and Nalini was the biggest breakthrough in the investigation. Their interrogation not only revealed the entire plot but also pointed a conclusive finger at Prabhakaran as the mastermind. Murugan admitted that he had direct orders from LTTE leader. With their confession, the arrests of Arivu and Robert Pias quickly followed.
But despite the success notched up so far, SIT chief D.R. Karthikeyan still feels that "there is a long way to go". As he told INDIA TODAY: "We are yet to catch the main culprit (now popularly known as one-eyed-jack because of his one glass eye) which might help us stretch the arm of law deep inside the forest of Jaffna. I am not jumping to any conclusion about the motive or conspiracy behind the crime. But we have solved how the assassination was executed. I must say that my colleagues have been doing a remarkable job". Judging by the chilling and detailed reconstruction of the plot to kill Rajiv Gandhi, that is clearly no idle boast.