Around a year ago, politician Subramaniam Swamy sat stonily deflecting queries in a TV debate about who killed former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. His reply to the nation’s self-professed representative was that the media should ask Congress president Sonia Gandhi, wife of the slain politician.
This assassination and the underlying conspiracy has been India’s biggest political mystery that defies resolution as investigating agencies continue to grope in the dark. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated on 21 May 1991 by a suicide bomber, suspected to be linked to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
A specially-convened unit of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), called the multi-dimensional monitoring agency (MDMA), headed by an officer continues to dust files to date despite the initial deadline of two years. It is in this context that veteran journalist Faraz Ahmad’s book is well timed because the present government, as he writes, is yet to extend the tenure of the MDMA, which started with a budget of about Rs 10 crore and continues to spend taxpayers’ money.
Several people have tried to solve this mystery and have written on it, including some of its former investigators and Swamy himself.
Ahmad brings his investigative skills to decoding this mystery by offering several motives to liquidate Rajiv Gandhi that myriad groups of people may have had. According to him, the LTTE was merely the trigger that many hitmen were waiting to pull. His book, Rajiv Gandhi Assassination: An Inside Job? looks at some important aspects of the investigation.
Several earlier efforts to unravel the crime arrived at a gamut of conclusions: for instance, CBI sleuth K Ragothaman, basing himself on the information at his disposal, concluded that the then ib chief withheld evidence. This ib chief was MK Narayanan, who was later appointed special internal security adviser to former PM Manmohan Singh until the 26/11 blasts in Mumbai took a toll on that arrangement, following which Narayanan was made the governor of West Bengal.
Swamy, on the other hand, provided a narrative that was structured to serve his political viewpoint.
Ahmad, in his book, often uses a point-counterpoint analysis approach to challenge some sections of other books on the subject. At times, the book appears to be a more holistic version laced with crucial anecdotes.
Ahmad’s view of the conspiracy traces multiple possibilities that include trouble within the Congress party, Rajiv Gandhi’s governance, ambitions of other Congress leaders and the Sri Lankan government’s benefit from a weakened LTTE. He explores the role of successive politicians and bureaucrats in keeping this mystery under a rug so that it may have been swept under during Swamy’s tenure as the Union law and justice minister in the Chandrasekhar government.
Ahmad mentions the involvement of Congress leaders from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and how PV Narasimha Rao took over as pm after sympathy votes flooded in for the Congress in the General Election — the same polls that Gandhi had been campaigning for when he was assassinated.
What Ahmad does not consider is that when the Jain Commission was probing into the conspiracy aspect of the assassination, a BJP worker had said that he was present at an alleged meeting in 1986. At this meeting, senior Congress leaders, controversial ‘godman’ Chandraswami and others had been plotting to remove Gandhi, who was the then PM.
Later, the same BJP worker refused to depose before the MDMA without Z-plus security, which could explain Ahmad’s hesitance to explore this issue.
The Jain Commission had also noted that Swamy had never revealed why he had gone with Chandraswami to London, the place where the conspiracy was allegedly given a body and the assassination planned.
The Jain Commission had pointed fingers at many people, writes Ahmad, including DMK supremo M Karunanidhi, Swamy, Chandraswami and former PM VP Singh.
An IB report of 1991 says that Karunanidhi’s son Alagiri allegedly warned DMK workers to stay indoors on the fateful night, hinting at prior knowledge of the conspiracy.
Ahmad does not mention an internal action-taken report of the government that says that when the CBI’s MDMA wanted to investigate the charge against Karunanidhi, the then TN chief secretary sent a letter to the home ministry challenging the investigation, obviously pushed by his political masters.
Since he was a reporter at the time, Ahmad remembers that the Jain Commission’s suspicion of Karunanidhi’s role helped the Congress (specifically its leader Arjun Singh) withdraw support from the IK Gujral-led United Front government.
The MDMA’s secret investigation is in itself fascinating. It has been kept from the public because “it could affect national security”. Whether that is true or not, if the report is made public, questions will be raised about the roles of the IB, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), Military Intelligence and the National Security Adviser.
Ahmad bores into and questions these other investigative narratives and opinions about the killing. This includes K Govindan Kutty’s book on former chief election commissioner TN Seshan, Swamy’s book, Ragothaman’s book and also one by inspector K Mohandas who probed into the former PM’s assassination. He relies on his own reportage from the time and most importantly, report of the JS Verma one-man committee that probed the assassination and report of the Jain Commission that probed the conspiracy angle. Verma, then a Supreme Court judge, later went on to become the Chief Justice of India.
The trial had resulted in 26 convictions, which brought on death sentences under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), which were later repealed. Upon appeal, the Supreme Court confirmed only four of these death sentences. In the appeals, the defence lawyers have often argued that the splitting of the inquiry into two commissions has cost their clients.
Ahmad opens his book with how the Narasimha Rao government split up the inquiry. One was for the breach of security arrangements for the slain former PM and the other was for the conspiracy. The MDMA’s inquiry has also gone on for so long without finding out the truth behind the killing, which could have proved the innocence of some of the convicts.
Another strange thing is how the trial, the appeals and the mercy petitions, took more than 20 years for the government to push through. When Sonia Gandhi and daughter Priyanka seemed to press for pardon of the death row convicts, it cleared the reasons and eventually the Supreme Court changed the sentence of death to life due to the inordinate delay in deciding the mercy petitions. When Jayalalithaa decided to remit the life sentence, there was all-round objection. Ahmad provides the political and evidentiary arguments behind the move.
Overall, Ahmad’s book is a significant collation of available information, accompanied as it is by closely argued hypotheses. It could be a good starting point for those who did not follow the assassination then, or have only heard about it subsequently. However, the book has not been able to access some very vital information that the MDMA might be sitting on, though it does shed light on some new aspects of the case.
But, most of all, a word must be said about the publishers who, despite the current regime and clime, have published Ahmad’s work on a highly controversial issue, which regurgitates the role of the interesting cast of characters such as Chandraswami and Subramaniam Swamy.