Homeland Security

The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi
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By B Raman
Issue Book Excerpt: The Kaoboys of R&AW | Date : 05 Nov , 2018

A few months after I had retired and settled down in Chennai, the late S.A. Subbiah, who had succeeded me in Geneva and subsequently became the head of the Sri Lanka division in the headquarters, rang me up from Delhi to say that he was coming to Chennai specially to meet me to discuss about the LTTE. I told him I would meet him in the R&AW guest house where he had planned to stay.

After his arrival, I went to the guest house. He told me: “Sir, I have come to meet you for two reasons. First, I wanted to thank you for saving the reputation of the organization.

The R&AW has come out largely unscathed from the enquiry held by the one-man enquiry commission of retired Chief Justice J.S.Verma on the security failures, which enabled the LTTE to kill Rajiv Gandhi.

There has been all-round appreciation of your assessment sent to Vinod Pandey after V.P.Singh took over as the Prime Minister on likely threats to Rajiv Gandhi’s security. In your assessment, you had said that there was a greater threat to the security of Rajiv Gandhi as the Leader of the Opposition than to the security of V.P.Singh as the Prime Minister. You had also stated that the main threats to Rajiv Gandhi would be from the Khalistani terrorists in the North and from the Sri Lankan Tamil terrorist organizations in the South.

Every time Rajiv Gandhi as the Prime Minister went to the South, this officer used to ring me up to say that the SPG should be alert to the possibility of a threat to his life from the Sri Lankan Tamils.

Subsequently, at inter-departmental meetings to discuss the security arrangements for Rajiv Gandhi as the Leader of the Opposition, you had strongly pleaded for the continuance of the security cover of the Special Protection Group (SPG) to him.Sir, the second reason I wanted to meet you was to find out who was the source who told you that there was a threat to Rajiv Gandhi’s security from the Sri Lankan Tamil terrorist organizations.

We notice that you had been saying this even when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister. We wanted to re-establish contact with your source, who seems to be very well-informed, but I could not find in the files left by you any source report on this subject”

I told Subbiah that my repeated cautions on the likelihood of a threat to the life of Rajiv Gandhi from the Sri Lankan Tamil terrorist organizations were not based on any source report.

It was my assessment based on what I had heard after I returned from Geneva in 1988 about the deep feelings of humiliation and anger entertained by some of these organizations—particularly by the LTTE and its leader Prabakaran—over the way they were treated by Rajiv Gandhi and his advisers after the conclusion of the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord of 1987.

They also nursed strong grievances over the alleged violations of the human rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils by the Indian Peace-Keeping Force sent to Sri Lanka to restore peace in the Tamil areas.

I also told Subbiah that my foreboading was also influenced by the warnings which I was getting repeatedly from the Chennai office of the R&AW regarding the likelihood of a threat to Rajiv Gandhi, even when he was the Prime Minster, from the Sri Lankan Tamils.

The Chennai office of the R&AW was then headed by an outstanding and low-profile IPS officer of the Karnataka cadre. Every time Rajiv Gandhi as the Prime Minister went to the South, this officer used to ring me up to say that the SPG should be alert to the possibility of a threat to his life from the Sri Lankan Tamils.

Even shortly after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, at a meeting of concerned officers, I was asked for my views as to who might have killed him. Without a moments hesitation, I replied “LTTE”. My view was dismissed.

I told Subbiah that my problem was that everybody in Delhi—in the intelligence community, in the JIC, in the MHA, in the Army headquarters, in the MEA and in the PMO— had convinced themselves that the Sri Lankan Tamils would never harm Rajiv Gandhi because he and his mother had done more to help them than any other Indian leader. All my cautions—based on my own assessment and on that of the then head of the R&AW’s Chennai office— were treated with skepticism.

Even shortly after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, at a meeting of concerned officers, I was asked for my views as to who might have killed him. Without a moment’s hesitation, I replied “LTTE”. My view was dismissed.

The prevailing view was that he had fallen a tragic victim to the factional politics in the Tamil Nadu Congress (I) or that he must have been killed by extremist elements of Tamil Nadu. It was only after a video-recording showing the suicide bomber and the blast recorded by a photographer, hired by the LTTE that was recovered, everybody accepted that it was the LTTE which had assassinated him.

The Government of India had appointed two enquiry commissions in the wake of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

The first Commission constituted by retired Chief Justice J.S.Verma was asked to go into the intelligence and physical security lapses which were responsible for the assassination.

The second, constituted by retired Justice M.C.Jain, was asked to go into the conspiracy aspect. The Verma Commission kept itself strictly confined to its terms of reference and carried out a thorough enquiry with a laser-sharp focus into the acts of commission and omission of the intelligence and security agencies, which contributed to the assassination.

As had happened during the enquiry into the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the enquiry into the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi too planted many needles of suspicion, without being able to remove any of the suspicions.

The Jain Commission lost focus and sought to go into matters, which had little relevance to the issue of an LTTE conspiracy. As a result, it took a very long time to complete its enquiries and the Government had to give it one extension after another. It even sought to go into the wisdom of the entire Sri Lanka policy of the Government, the operational policies of the R&AW and the IB etc. This caused considerable embarrassment to the Narasimha Rao Government at various stages.

It had to face a dilemma—- if it agreed to the course of action of the Commission and placed before it all the operational files demanded by it, the operational security of the intelligence agencies would have been diluted. If it did not agree to it, there might have been allegations of a cover-up by the Government and its intelligence agencies. Ultimately, the intelligence agencies let him have access to whatever files he wanted to see and whatever information he wanted, even if, in their view, those were not relevant to his terms of reference.

They did this in order not to give room for any suspicion. Despite all the time taken and all the access given to him, the Commission’s report left much to be desired. As had happened during the enquiry into the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the enquiry into the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi too planted many needles of suspicion, without being able to remove any of the suspicions. Without throwing light to remove the areas of darkness surrounding the two tragic assassinations, the two enquiries only added to the darkness.

The CBI itself, under the brilliant leadership of Vijay Karan, S.K. Dutta and D.R.Karthikeyan and with the equally brilliant co-operation of the late Subbiah, carried out a thorough investigation of the LTTE’s plot to kill Rajiv Gandhi, its successful execution , the identities of those involved—whether in Sri Lanka or India or elsewhere— and their respective roles. Many of those involved—the principal killers— committed suicide after the assassination through a suicide bomber and thereby evaded arrest and prosecution. Many others, who did not or could not commit suicide, were identified, arrested and prosecuted.

The case ended in their conviction. Prabakaran and others, who conceived and orchestrated the conspiracy from their headquarters in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, have managed to escape the reach of the law so far.

At every stage, attempts were made to embarrass Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress (I). When his party urged that the SPG protection be extended to him, it was told that while this would not be possible…

Apart from the investigation of the assassination and the related conspiracy, another important aspect was the identification of the acts of commission and omission by the political leadership of the day, the intelligence agencies and those responsible for physical security which resulted in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Any objective examination of the circumstances, which led to his assassination, would have clearly brought out that Rajiv Gandhi was a tragic victim of the politicization of his physical security by the Government of V.P.Singh and its senior officers, the failure of the Chandra Shekhar Government to rectify the situation, the failure of the intelligence agencies to closely monitor the activities of the LTTE from the point of view of his security, the shocking negligence of the Tamil Nadu Police and the total lack of co-ordination among the agencies responsible for his protection.

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So long as he was the Prime Minister, the SPG, which was set up after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, was responsible for the protection of Rajiv Gandhi and his family. It was patterned after the US Secret Service, which is responsible for the protection of the US President and his family. The US Secret Service also exercises some responsibilities for the protection of all past Presidents and their families. When the SPG Act was passed by the Parliament, it was given the responsibility only for the protection of the Prime Minister and his family. Since it was created, it had developed expertise in all matters relating to the PM’s security— close proximity protection, access control, anti-explosives checks, advance examination of the places to be visited by the Prime Minister etc.

It had also developed a well-tested drill for co-ordination with other agencies at the Centre and with the Police of the State to be visited by the Prime Minister. The SPG was in a position to neutralize any threat arising as a result of acts of possible negligence by the State Police. The Prime Minister virtually enjoyed two layers of protection—one by the State Police and the other by the SPG. There was thus an in-built fail-safe mechanism. Its work was supervised continuously by a senior officer of the rank of Secretary designated as Secretary (Security).

Once Rajiv Gandhi ceased to be the Prime Minister after his party lost the elections in November, 1989, and became the Leader of the Opposition, he was no longer entitled to protection by the SPG. However, he continued to be the most threatened political leader of the country and the threat to his security was much higher than that to even V.P.Singh, the new Prime Minister. Even though Rajiv Gandhi himself, who was a proud man, never raised the issue of his security, his party was greatly concerned over it and repeatedly took it up with the PMO and the Cabinet Secretary as well as with V.P.Singh himself.

The Government made the pretense of doing everything necessary and possible for the protection of Rajiv Gandhi—keeping in view the suggestions of the Congress (I)— without taking the one step that would have assured his protection—–namely, amending the SPG Act to make the SPG responsible for the protection of past Prime Ministers too. Congress (I) would have definitely supported such an amendment. For reasons, which were not clear to me, the V.P.Singh Government avoided doing this.

The SPG Act was amended after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi to make the SPG responsible for the protection of all past Prime Ministers too and their families. Had this been done before his assassination, this great tragedy could have been averted.

It was my view that even if there was any political difficulty in having the SPG Act amended, ways could be found to continue to extend the SPG protection to him through an executive decision of the Prime Minister. The only problem that would have arisen was with the Finance, which might not have approved the expenditure incurred on his protection by the SPG since he was legally not entitled to it.

As had happened during the enquiry into the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the enquiry into the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi too planted many needles of suspicion, without being able to remove any of the suspicions.

This difficulty could have been got over by meeting the expenditure out of the operational funds of the intelligence agencies. I knew of instances where special physical security had been provided to even private persons, who were not in the Government, by meeting the expenditure out of the operational funds of the intelligence agencies. The Government could have easily extended this gesture to Rajiv Gandhi.

At every stage, attempts were made to embarrass Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress (I). When his party urged that the SPG protection be extended to him, it was told that while this would not be possible, the Government could transfer to the Delhi Police SPG officers in whom he had personal confidence so that they could continue to provide close-proximity protection to him. The whole thing was mischievously made to appear by the V.P.Singh Government as a question of personal loyalty to Rajiv Gandhi and not of institutional competence. The Congress (I) wanted SPG protection for Rajiv Gandhi not because he liked some SPG officers, but because it had better expertise and competence than the Police.

Since he was no longer entitled to the use of Government aircraft, he started traveling by the flights of the Indian Airlines, but attempts were made to deny him even the courtesy of traveling upto the tarmac in his car and directly getting into the aircraft. At the meetings of the co-ordination committee, which I used to attend on behalf of the R&AW, the requests and concerns of the Congress (I) regarding his security were treated more with sarcasm than seriousness.

Surprisingly, matters were not set right when Chandra Shekhar succeeded V.P.Singh as the Prime Minister. He was dependent on the parliamentary support of the Congress (I) for remaining in office and would have done whatever the Congress (I) wanted him to do. But, the Congress (I) did not raise with him the question of the inadequacy of the security provided to Rajiv Gandhi with the same persistence with which it took up the issue with V.P.Singh.

The intelligence agencies knew that Rajiv Gandhi was top on the hit list of the Khalistani terrorists. Even when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister, the R&AW had drawn attention to the likelihood of a threat to his security from the Sri Lankan Tamil extremist organizations. It repeated this warning after he became the Leader of the Opposition. These warnings did not receive the attention they deserved because they were based on assessments and not on specific intelligence.

…the code-breakers of the R&AW indicated that the LTTE’s communications security was poor. If it was poor after the assassination, it was most likely that it was poor before it too.

When there is such an assessment indicating the likelihood of a threat to a VVIP, the intelligence agencies are expected to initiate specific operations through their sources and through technical means to look for concrete indicators of such a threat. No such action was taken because everybody presumed- disastrously as it turned out— that, while the LTTE and other Sri Lankan Tamil organizations might indulge in acts of terrorism against each other in Indian territory, they would not indulge in acts of terrorism against any Indian leader.

The only human intelligence report of some relevance came from the German intelligence a few months before the assassination stating that a Sri Lankan Tamil living in Germany had been visiting Chennai and that he was reputed to be an expert in explosives.

Unfortunately, this was not properly enquired into by the IB. They maintained that their enquiries did not indicate that he was an explosives expert. The entire focus of the intelligence coverage of the LTTE was on its activities in Sri Lanka, its gun-running etc. There was no specific focus on likely threats to Rajiv Gandhi’s security from it.

After the assassination, the Monitoring Division of the R&AW, energized by Subbiah, did outstanding work in tracking down the movements of those involved in the conspiracy to kill Rajiv Gandhi on an hour-to-hour basis, but the Monitoring Division too had failed to detect the conspiracy to kill Rajiv Gandhi before the tragedy took place.

The interceptions made after the assassination and the repeated breaking of the LTTE’s code by the code-breakers of the R&AW indicated that the LTTE’s communications security was poor. If it was poor after the assassination, it was most likely that it was poor before it too. The monitoring was not as systematic before the assassination as it was after it.

After my retirement, while I was going through the report of the Jain Commission, it was evident that the IB had better interception capability with regard to the LTTE than the R&AW, which had a better code-breaking capability than the IB. The two would not tell each other of their respective capabilities and would not pool their capabilities to produce results. It was evident from the incident of clandestine air-dropping of arms and ammunition by an unidentified organization at Purulia in 1995 and from the Kargil military conflict with Pakistan in 1999 that the intelligence agencies continue to keep each other in the dark about their respective capabilities and avoid pooling them.

In the case of the Purulia air-drop by unidentified elements, the R&AW did not tell the IB that the information about the planned air-drop came from the MI-5, which, in turn, got it from the pilot of the plane hired by the extremists. He was a retired pilot of the British Air Force and had reportedly alerted the MI-5 through the British Defence Ministry the moment the extremists tried to hire him as a pilot.The R&AW could have shared all the details with the IB and the two could have mounted a joint operation in collaboration with the pilot to lay a trap on the ground. This was apparently not done.

In the case of the Kargil conflict, the moment the DIB reported about unusual happenings in Pakistan’s Northern Areas, the R&AW could have taken the initiative for proposing a joint operation by the Aviation Research Centre (ARC), the IB and the Directorate-General of Military Intelligence (DGMI) for an aerial surveillance of the areas indicated by the IB. This does not seem to have been done.Sharing of knowledge of each other’s capabilities—particularly in respect of intelligence collection— and joint or co-ordinated exploitation of these capabilities should be the norm if we have to avoid such surprises.

The LTTE succeeded in blowing up Rajiv Gandhi by taking advantage of the negligence and weak supervision of the IB and the Tamil Nadu Police. This would show that those responsible for physical security for our leaders had failed to learn the right lessons from the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The same casualness, the same lack of attention to detail, the same inadequate supervision, which cost Indira Gandhi her life, cost the life of her son too. Since 1947, no other Prime Minister had taken more interest in improving our intelligence and security agencies and done more to improve their conditions of service than Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

What a shocking tragedy that these agencies, which owed them so much, so miserably failed to protect them. Every officer, who had served in our agencies at that time—-in whatever capacity—- should hang his or her head in shame. We failed them.

After the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, Chandra Shekhar took up the stand that it was almost impossible to protect a VIP from suicide terrorists. This is totally wrong. It is very difficult to protect a soft target such as a shopping area or the crowd in a public place from a suicide terrorist or, for that matter, even from a terrorist, who does not indulge in suicide terrorism. But a hard target such as a VVIP or a VIP can be protected from a suicide terrorist through effective ant-explosive check and access control. Rajiv Gandhi was killed because the IB and the Tamil Nadu Police had failed to ensure an effective anti-explosive check and access control.

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It was reported that Justice J.S.Verma, who had enquired into the failures of the intelligence and security agencies, felt that the officers of these agencies, who testified before him, were not very forthcoming. While forwarding his report to the Government, he, therefore, suggested that the officers, who had anything to do with Rajiv Gandhi’s physical security, should hold an introspection session in order to identify their own deficiencies and take action to correct them.The IB convened such an introspection session.

All serving senior officers, who were responsible for the physical security of Rajiv Gandhi, and even those, who had retired after his assassination, attended it. I too.Nothing useful came of it. No one was prepared to admit that there were any deficiencies. I suggested that we should look into the way in which the report from the German intelligence about the visit of an LTTE sympathizer, reputed to be an explosive expert, to Chennai was verified before it was rejected.

My suggestion was not accepted by the IB officers. It turned out to be more a self-justification than an introspection session. Our intelligence and security agencies rarely admit their faults and deficiencies. That is why we keep moving from one tragedy to another, from one disaster to another.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

B Raman

Former, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai & Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. He is the author of The Kaoboys of R&AW, A Terrorist State as a Frontline Ally,  INTELLIGENCE, PAST, PRESENT & FUTUREMumbai 26/11: A Day of Infamy and Terrorism: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.

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3 thoughts on “The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi

  1. After murdering the thug with their own criminal political elements, the the Hindian rulers found a new and brilliant way to further the Genocide of Eelam-Tamils and also further oppressing the Tamils of Tamil-naadu. Though the murderous alliance of Sinhalese and the Hindians might have succeeded in their wave after wave of actual and the on-going structural Genocide of the Tamil nation, its a remarkable reminder that the, “Boys in Sarong” clearly showed the 1 billion plus baby-factory’s short comings. There will be a point in time when this Genocidal alliance is taught the lesson.

  2. That was a beautiful and very informative article, and it was very apparent in those days when we were students who were interested in our countries security, that Our Ex Late Prime Minister’s life was very much endangered and very lagging in personal security which resulted in his assaination, otherwise Our Country would have developed in leaps and bounds under his leadership and vision.

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