The roster of political murders in South Asia during the twentieth century is pretty lengthy. Starting with the apostle of peace Mahatma Gandhi who was killed in 1948, leaders of all countries in this region have fallen prey to assassins’ bullets as the years progressed. India had to bear the trauma of seeing Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of the nation being killed by her own body guards in 1984.
This was followed by the brutal assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, by a female suicide bomber, when he was campaigning in Tamil Nadu during the general elections in 1991. The attack was blamed on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an outfit that waged a secessionist nationalist insurgency to create an independent state of Tamil Eelam in the north and east of Sri Lanka for Tamil people.
Neena Gopal, then working for Gulf News, a Dubai based newspaper, had travelled in the car with Rajiv Gandhi from Chennai airport till Sriperumbudur, where the assassination took place. Rajiv Gandhi was to address an election meeting there to canvass votes for Maragatham Chandrasekar, the Congress candidate contesting in the elections.
Neena interviewed the former Indian Prime Minister during the journey and had stepped off the car to proceed to the venue of the meeting when Dhanu, the suicide bomber, detonated the explosives strapped to her body through a waist belt, instantly killing Rajiv Gandhi. Neena was witness to the chaos and confusion that followed the blast and managed to get a vehicle to take her first to Chennai and later to Bangalore.
Sonia Gandhi sought to meet her in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, to know what Rajiv Gandhi had spoken during the last minutes before being assassinated. Hence, it was expected that her book, penned almost a quarter of a century after the assassination and a good seven years after the wiping out of the LTTE, would throw light not only into the event but also into the wider conspiracy and impact of this killing on the movement for Tamil Eelam, championed by the LTTE.
Investigators probing the assassination were helped by the recovery of a camera from the site of the blast, which had been used by the team supporting the suicide bomber to record the assassination and the events leading up to it. Sivarasan, the mastermind behind the assassination, had taken the services of a photographer named Haribabu, who had recorded, through his camera, the movements of the assassin and the team supporting her. This film roll provided all the required clues for the investigators to zero in on the perpetrators of the crime, most of whom could be apprehended quickly. However, Sivaraman and his accomplice Subha avoided capture and were finally traced to a house located at the outskirts of Bangalore, where they committed suicide on finding that commandos had surrounded the place.
The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi became a seminal event that changed the attitude and approach of Indian political establishment and public towards the struggle waged by Tamils in Sri Lanka. Initially, the atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan army and the Sinhalese majority on the Tamils had elicited sympathy for their cause from the Indian side, particularly from the state of Tamil Nadu. Subsequently, there were unconfirmed reports about training camps being organized for Tamil militants in India, under the supervision of intelligence agencies. India had managed to maintain an equal distance from the various groups that espoused the Tamil cause but gradually the LTTE, the deadliest of all the outfits, gained a distinct upper hand.
When Rajiv Gandhi signed the accord with J.R. Jayawardene, the then president of Sri Lanka in 1987, the LTTE was upset as it specified that they would have to lay down arms. Subsequently, when the Indian army was inducted into the island as a peace keeping force, sentiments of both Sinhalese and Tamils were hurt. Jayawardene shrewdly used the Indian army to take on the Tamil militants while he deployed the Sri Lankan army to crush the Sinhala militancy.
The Indian army, which was forced to take on the LTTE, who specialized in guerrilla warfare in the jungles of North and East Sri Lanka, suffered heavy losses. Finally, the Indian forces were withdrawn in 1990 as the new government in India led by V.P. Singh and the new Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa were both opposed to it remaining in Sri Lanka. In short, the accord with Sri Lanka and the deployment of the Indian army constitute chapters in history where Indian diplomacy did not cover itself with glory.
It was expected that a book would try to analyze the circumstances under which the accord was born and the reasons for its total failure. However, apart from interviewing some former intelligence operatives and retired members of the armed forces, the author has not attempted to find out what went wrong with the accord, which was signed with much fanfare. The difficulties that handicapped the functioning of the Indian army, the lack of clarity in the approach towards the LTTE and the turf wars between the army, intelligence agencies and foreign office mandarins, all of which require detailed analysis, have been glossed over by the author.
Though there was resentment amongst the Tamil population in Sri Lanka against the deployment of the Indian army, no one expected that it would lead to the LTTE deciding to assassinate the former prime minister of India who had decided to send the army. The reasons that prompted Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE, to take this decision are not available in the public domain. It would be irrational to think that it was mere anger that led to this decision as Prabhakaran would have known that his action would lead to loss of all forms of support from India on a permanent basis.
The increase in firepower that the LTTE displayed during the 1990’s arouses the suspicion that there could have been some sort of quid pro quo with a powerful entity for support, in case India withdrew theirs on account of the assassination. However, the book does not offer any fresh insights into this aspect nor does it delve deeper into the wider conspiracy angle that was the subject of much enquiry.
The final question that remains is whether the LTTE served the causes of the Tamils in Sri Lanka or ended up doing a grave injustice to their brethren remaining there. The LTTE had earned a bad name on account of the tales about they using human shields, recruiting school children compulsorily into the guerrilla forces, forcing their members to wear cyanide capsules round the neck to avoid capture and the ruthless killing of political opponents. It has been more than seven years since the LTTE was decimated and a study done at this time should have covered the legacy left behind by the force and its impact on the Tamils presently living in Sri Lanka. However, here also the book falters as the author has not attempted a serious study into this aspect.
In the final analysis, the book disappoints as it does not offer the reader any information that is not already available in the public domain nor does it analyze the material at hand to suggest possible answers to the questions that have been plaguing the public mind on this topic. The only USP of this work is the last hour of Rajiv Gandhi’s life, described with graphic details.