Anatomy of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination 

A meticulous account of how a LTTE death squad murdered former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the SIT’s deadly cat-and-mouse game that brought the killers to justice

Published: 26th June 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th June 2022 01:19 AM   |  A+A-

Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at an election rally in May 1991

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) called Vijay Karan back after five days in Colombo. The CBI head stopped in Madras on his way back to Delhi. (Radhavinod) Raju, (Amod) Kanth, Sri Kumar, (Amit) Verma and (K) Ragothaman were present at the airport for a closed-door meeting with him. Sources in Colombo had already confirmed that the kurta-pyjama clad man had only one eye and his name was Packiaraj, one of his many aliases.

Karan briefed his officers on everything he had been able to gather in Colombo, and they, in turn, reported their progress in detail. There was no new information except what the SIT had already learnt about the kurta-pyjama man—that he was an LTTE operative who was one-eyed and known as Sivaraja Master with possible aliases such as Sivarasan, Sivarajan and Packiaraj. But that was yet to be confirmed. The flight was waiting for Karan as the rest of the passengers were already on board.

Nalini and Murugan’s photographs were passed around. A team of more than a hundred officers, policemen, Cobra commandos and Black Cat commandos stood outside the SIT office building. At the helm of the briefing was Kaarthikeyan. In a booming voice, he addressed his men to boost their morale and wished them luck.

The SIT boss said, ‘First thing, we have to catch them alive. No bullets to be shot as you will be looking for them in crowded places. A bystander’s safety is important. None of you will be in uniform, so mixing with the crowd will be easy. Be very discreet in all your wireless communication. Is that clear?’
‘Clear,’ the men chanted in unison. ‘Best of luck. Let’s go and get them,’ said Kaarthikeyan with conviction.

A couple had just alighted from a bus. There were very few other passengers with them. The wireless said, ‘Near the main exit, near the main exit... a male and a female... Male has head covered... Male has head covered in towel... Over.’

Ravindran wasted no time in approaching the couple, who were near the main exit by then. Verma was inches behind Ravindran. ‘Watch out... they may be carrying grenades... I will tackle Murugan and my boys the lady. You stay behind,’ Ravindran told Verma.

Ravindran picked up pace, and his plainclothes commandos followed suit. The Black Cats stationed inside the compound scaled the walls, landed on the road outside the depot and quietly encircled the duo headed towards the autorickshaw stand.

Ravindran was right behind the man. Seeing one of his commandos quietly walking next to Nalini, Ravindran signalled with a nod. In a fraction of a second, the commandos pounced upon Nalini, and Ravindran caught hold of the towel covering Murugan’s head and pulled it over his face to avoid him taking a cyanide pill. Murugan struggled at first and then reached for Ravindran’s throat. But Ravindran wound the towel tighter, incapacitating him.

Verma watched the Black Cats put Nalini into a car. A few metres away, Murugan managed to grab Ravindran’s pistol and held the muzzle against his abdomen while Ravindran used his arms to restrain Murugan. Verma turned to Ravindran and found, to his horror, that Murugan had a gun pressed into the abdomen of the NSG captain. Ravindran tightened his chokehold on the towel and whispered into Murugan’s ear, ‘Killing me will not help you escape. My men will catch you and roast you, because 
your ticket to martyrdom the cyanide capsule is in my hand.’ 

There was silence in the room after Murugan was done talking. It exposed how porous India’s borders and its security system were. Murugan said that at that point, Sivarasan was set to execute his leader’s directive—the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

After a while, both Payas and Jayakumar revealed that the LTTE’s intelligence chief Pottu Amman had a plan B in case his plan in Madras failed. Then the place of strike would be Delhi. Pottu Amman had sent another human bomb—Sonia alias Athirai alias Akila— along with an old man, Kanagasabapathy, posing as her grandfather to the Indian capital. The next step for Ragothaman was to make Athirai and Kanagasabapathy sit face to face with Jayakumar and Payas. With an increase in the number of the subjects, Ragothaman had asked Verma to join in. Eventually, the four confessed to their roles in the grand operation of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. 

Payas and Jayakumar told the SIT what they knew about plan B. Sivarasan had devised a plan to infiltrate a travel agency named M/s President Travel Services in the capital that was run by V Kalyanasundaram. He was related to a senior Congress politician and a close aide of Rajiv Gandhi. 
When Anirudhya heard the name of the Congress politician, he ran a quick check on the travel agency through India Today’s Delhi office. Kalyanasundaram denied any links with Sivarasan or the LTTE, but various media reports indicated that the LTTE had got his contact details from Kalyanasundaram’s uncle, Jagadeesan, a retired army man who ran a rice mill in Thopputhurai.

When contacted, the Congress politician categorically denied any knowledge that ‘President Travels’ had links with the LTTE and said he had never used the agency for any of his or his family’s travels. Was the SIT being misled again? Knowing how the LTTE would have used the lead, the SIT questioned Payas and Jayakumar on whether they had used Maragatham Chandrasekar, the Congress candidate from Sriperumbudur, to get Dhanu close to Rajiv? There were reports of Latha Kannan and Kokila, who were seen flanking Dhanu in Haribabu’s picture, getting their VIP passes to greet Rajiv through Chandrasekar’s daughter Latha Priya Kumar, also a Congress worker. However, with both Kokila and Latha dead, the reports could not be verified. Both Payas and Jayakumar claimed they knew nothing. It would have suited them to implicate a Congress politician, that, too, someone as close as Maragatham Chandrasekar to Rajiv. But they refrained. The duo was sent back to their cell even as the interrogation of Athirai and Kanagasabapathy continued .

According to unconfirmed reports, Sonia, alias Athirai, was chosen because she had a fair complexion, which they thought would allow her to mix better with the Delhi crowd. Pottu Amman told her that Kanagasabapathy would be accompanying her to the Indian capital and arrange for her stay at a place where a few more LTTE cadres would also take shelter. Their task would be to collect information about the movements of certain VIPs in the capital. Athirai would be informed when the time was right to strike. Athirai did not admit that the target was Rajiv Gandhi at that stage of her interrogation. The place Kanagasabapathy chose was: 

[A two-room] Central-government quarter, illegally rented out by its government servant, had made it the perfect cover. It was located in a sprawl of single-storey government accommodation in north Moti Bagh in south Delhi. It was just eight kilometres away from Rajiv Gandhi’s 10 Janpath residence. Kanagasabapathy had paid Rs 5,000 as advance to the broker, claiming his granddaughter would come and stay there very soon to study Hindi and computers. 

Jayakumar was brought back into the interrogation with Athirai and Kanagasabapathy. He confirmed that while Sivarasan was confident of accomplishing the task of killing Rajiv Gandhi in Tamil Nadu, his immediate boss Pottu Amman preferred the Indian capital. ‘Why don’t we try Delhi?’ Pottu Amman had asked in a coded message in March 1991. ‘I am confident that I can do it here [in Tamil Nadu],’ Sivarasan had replied in a coded message. Pottu Amman had insisted he continue with Delhi as the backup plan. The Delhi plot was, naturally, abandoned after the LTTE’s success in Sriperumbudur.

Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins from Ninety Days: The True Story of the Hunt for Rajiv Gandhi’s Assassins by Anirudhya Mitra 


The Assassins

The mastermind He has been one of the most elusive fugitives in history. He had a reward of `15 lakh on his head but made sure he wasn’t caught alive—he had shot himself.

Logistics, support base He, besides his boss Sivarasan, was the only LTTE member to be involved in two assassinations carried out by the LTTE on Indian soil. He had assisted Sivarasan at every step while planning and executing the assassination of EPRLF leader K Padmanabha exactly a year before Rajiv Gandhi’s killing. The Supreme Court upheld his death sentence in May 1999 and later it was commuted to life term in February 2014.

Explosive expert
A member of the LTTE’s intelligence wing, he was trained in close-combat warfare and the making of bombs. While carrying out his task meticulously, Murugan fell in love with a local girl named Nalini, used her in his scheme of things and later married her. She became a key conspirator. His death sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court in May 1999, which was commuted to life term in February 2014.

Gave refuge to the human bombs

A key conspirator and facilitator of the assassination, Nalini was a tough nut to crack. During the interrogation, she openly abused Rajiv and compared the SIT investigators with the IPKF, calling them ‘butchers of innocent Tamils’. Her death sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court in May 1999. However, on appeal, it was commuted to life term by the apex court later.

The bombmaker

He arranged the equipment for the bomb that was used to kill Rajiv Gandhi and carried out a location scout of former Prime Minister VP Singh’s rally in Madras to assess security arrangements. The Supreme Court first upheld his death sentence and then reduced it to life term.

Key conspirator

A young LTTE activist from Madras, Bhagyanathan was the first recruit of the assassination plot and was involved at every stage of the killing. Bhagyanathan brainwashed his sister Nalini and mother Padma against the former Indian Prime Minister and brought them into the LTTE fold. He is currently serving life term in jail.

ROBERT PAYAS Gave refuge to the mastermind
With help from Murugan, he gave shelter to Sivarasan in his house in Madras before and after the assassination. A Sri Lankan Tamil, Payas, accompanied by his wife, had come from Jaffna in September 1990 and sought political asylum in Tamil Nadu. Payas is currently serving life term in jail.

The Investigators

Head of the SIT
The lawyer-turned-IPS officer from the 1964 batch was appointed to head the SIT by then PM Chandra Shekhar

The 1978-batch IPS officer 
from the Tamil Nadu cadre was handpicked by the CBI Director for his notable experience in Tamil Nadu and cracking several crucial cases. 

DSP, CBI-Madras Ragothaman who joined the 
CBI in 1968 was appointed as the chief investigation officer of the case. He was chosen for his good record in solving murder cases.

DIG, CBI-Delhi
The 1974-batch UT-cadre IPS officer’s rise to fame was his handling of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Thereafter, he cracked many sensitive cases, including the assassination of Indira Gandhi and Congress leader Lalit Maken.

The 1975-batch Jammu and Kashmir-cadre IPS officer had rich experience in tackling insurgency problems, and hence had a fine understanding of militancy and a militant’s mind.

National Security Guard
The NSG commando unit head was asked to be on standby with a 30-member team of the Black Cat commandos by the Cabinet Secretariat hours after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

Director, Tamil Nadu 
Forensics Lab
He made the first breakthrough in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case while the CBI was groping in the dark. 

Likewise, the sudden discovery of a taped telephone conversation between Prabhakaran and his political adviser Anton Balasingham sent shockwaves through the security agencies. In the conversation, Prabhakaran is heard telling Balasingham that Rajiv Gandhi should be ‘fixed’ once he (Prabhakaran) gets off Indian soil.

Kaarthikeyan was visiting Delhi to depose before the Verma Inquiry Commission. He had made it a point to visit Sonia Gandhi at 10, Janpath. Sonia could not hold in her tears. Her daughter Priyanka did most of the talking. Two years elder to her, Rahul Gandhi chose to hear the SIT chief debrief his mother on the progress of the investigation into his father’s assassination.

Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins from Ninety Days: The True Story of the Hunt for Rajiv Gandhi’s Assassins by Anirudhya Mitra


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