Aftermath of the Rajiv assassination: The ‘M-word', loose ends and the terrorist in the tanker

And his conviction that “nothing more was to be found” is unshaken. “All the loose ends were tied up,” he told this correspondent over the phone.

Published: 26th June 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th June 2022 11:45 PM   |  A+A-

DR Kaarthikeyan with investigators; hideout of the accused

DR Kaarthikeyan with investigators; hideout of the accused

Thirty-one years separate the time when the CBI’s special investigation team (SIT) took over the probe into Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination—May 22, 1991—and now when the man who led that arduous task, DR Kaarthikeyan, still holds firmly that a “perfect” job was done. Age has brought on a quiver in Kaarthikeyan’s voice but his memory remains sharp. And his conviction that “nothing more was to be found” is unshaken. “All the loose ends were tied up,” he told this correspondent over the phone.

Were they? Police officers other than Kaarthikeyan that this newspaper spoke to still wonder why some of the fragments from the past were never quite followed up vigorously even if it meant eliminating them. “Larger conspiracy” is a euphemism that some of the probe officers and Intelligence Bureau officials use to point to a “foreign hand”—in other words, the suspected involvement of a ruthlessly efficient intelligence agency.

The investigators should have looked beyond Jaffna—the ‘headquarters’ of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)—and sifted through the “red herrings” before probing the suspected involvement of the Israeli Mossad which had dealt with the Tigers in the years before Rajiv Gandhi was blown up by a suicide bomber at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu.

The Kaarthikeyan-led SIT steered clear of the ‘M’ word. It was a no-go zone. But sleuths who probed the Rajiv killing said in private that the SIT itself was divided on this issue: while some stuck to meticulously investigating only the ‘one-eyed Jack’ or Sivarasan and his other Tiger associates, another group of officers wanted to touch the shores of Israel, which was not allowed.

Kaarthikeyan’s brief was to investigate the assassins and their associates in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and arrest and charge sheet them before taking the case to trial and eventual conviction. This is considered by security specialists to be “too simplistic”, especially when there were fragments of information—encrypted coded messages—available at that time that suggested they emanated from another country. Both the JS Verma and the MC Jain commissions of inquiry had dealt with the coded messages but these could not be fully broken by the investigators to get a deeper sense of the entire assassination plot.

Secondly, investigators were divided over giving credence to the claims made by the Mantle family. The widow of a retired locomotive engineer, Shirley Mantle lived in the south of Madras in Kodungaiyur where the assassination team had taken up residence and were neighbours of this family. Shirley and her daughter told investigators how the suspected assassins behaved at that time and switched between three hideouts before and after that fateful evening of May 21, 1991.

Shirley had claimed that she had spoken to Sivarasan and Shubha (a ‘substitute’ of Dhanu) but the SIT team did not pay much attention to these vital bits of information. Thirdly, a great deal of confusion arose as multiple agencies were involved in the probe. While the Kaarthikeyan-led SIT did the on-the-ground probe, there were the Bangalore police’s special task force and the Intelligence Bureau. They pursued their own leads and did put their heads together to make sense of the assassination but there were several areas, including who will break the LTTE codes, where no clear strategy or tactic emerged.

The investigators followed the dug-up clues “passionately” but there were slip-ups too—which helped Sivarasan remain two steps ahead of them. In the course of the chase, Sivarasan is said to have travelled in the belly of an oil tanker. The sleuths failed to detect this.

Besides, it was a well-known fact that the LTTE cadres in Jaffna and beyond used cyanide capsules. And yet little or no effort was made to trace where the cyanide came from. Was the source any foreign agency, and was the deadly poison procured locally in Sri Lanka? These and many other questions related to the as-yet-unknown aspects of the assassination continue to mystify people. 


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