Unanswered Questions In Rajiv Gandhi Assassination, Writes Justice KT Thomas

I had been a member of the three - member Supreme Court bench along with Justice D P Wadhwa and Justice Syed Shah Mohammed Quadri which heard the appeal in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. Twenty six members of LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam), who were charged with the murder of the former Prime minister by the investigating agencies had been found guilty and sentenced to death by the trial court. The appeal we heard was filed by the convicted prisoners challenging the trial court’s verdict. We found seven of them guilty and acquitted the rest. Of these seven, the death sentence of four were upheld and three were commuted to life imprisonment. The verdict was not unanimous as there was difference among the judges. I was of the opinion that the woman convict Nalini should be given Life imprisonment instead of capital punishment. This is what I wrote in my judgment on her.

“She is the mother of a little female child who would not have even experienced maternal huddling as that little one was born in captivity. Of course the maxim "Justicia non novit patrem nee matrem"(Justice knows no father nor mother) is a pristine doctrine. But it cannot be allowed to reign with its rigour in the sphere of sentence determination. As we have confirmed the death sentence passed on the father of that small child an effort to save its mother from gallows may not militate against just glad so that an innocent child can be saved from imposed orphanhood” .

The other judges on the bench were opposed to it and she too was sent to the death row in accordance to a majority verdict. Her death sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment by the Government. After some years the others also got remission. All of them are serving their time in the Vellur Central Jail in Tamilnadu.



Simultaneous to the case, the union Government had ordered a judicial inquiry in to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Former chief justice of the Delhi High Court, Justice Jain was appointed as the commission. Unfortunately, the commission took so many years to submit its report.

The Elam organization that was held responsible for the Rajiv Gandhi assassination was Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India was instrumental in sending Indian Peace Keeping Force,(IPKF) a special contingent of Indian military to Srilanka to help their Government in curbing the revolting Tamil rebels. The LTTE was constantly complaining of the atrocities committed by the Indian troops including rape of Tamil girls. In the next elections Rajiv Gandhi was voted out and VP Singh became the Prime Minister of India, resulting in the withdrawal of the ‘Indian peace keeping force’ from SriLanka.



After a couple of years V P Singh had to quit, and K.Chandrasekhar with support of the Congress was made the premier. He was a disciple of the self-proclaimed god-man Chandraswamy, who was enormously rich and had connections with many international arms dealers. He was backing Chandrasekhar for the Prime Ministerial berth. However, subsequently the Congress party withdrew its support to Chandrasekhar and he was forced quit the office.The president dissolved the parliament and a general election was declared. Rajiv Gandhi started campaigning for the Congress Party. He made his views on the Sri Lankan issue public when Tushar Kanti Ghosh, the Editor of Amrit Bazar Patrika interviewed him which was published in the Sunday Magazine of the newspaper on the 12th and 19th of August, 1990. The pith of the interview, concerning Sri Lankan policy, was that Rajiv Gandhi did not favour withdrawal of the IPKF from Sri Lanka and he was critical of the approach made by V.P. Singh Government towards Sri Lanka. In the election manifesto published by Congress for the ensuing general election the party reiterated its commitment to the India-Sri Lanka agreement of July 1987 as the basis for the settlement of outstanding issues relating to the Tamil population of Sri Lanka, and assured to ensure the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. An opinion poll at this juncturehad predicted that Rajiv Gandhi was all set to win the elections.



Knowing about this the top leadership of the Tamil Tigers decided to stop him from coming back to power by any means and hatched a plan to assassinate him. As a follow-up step of the conspiracy, a group of Tamil tigers led by Shivarasan arrived on the Indian shore in different batches by boat. They laid low in Tamilnadu in for some days. Two girls among them, Thanu and Subha offered themselves to become human bombs. When information reached that Rajiv Gandhi was addressing a meeting at Sriperumpudur, some 30-40 kilometers away from Chennai, they started working secretly to execute the plan to assassinate the former Prime Minister by detonating a bomb. Thanu was fitted with a bomb on her body together with a battery and switch. The loosely stitched Salwar-kameez which was purchased earlier was worn by Thanu and it helped her to conceal the bomb and the other accessories thereto.

As the Rajiv Gandhi arrived at the venue, Thanu could reach near the red carpet where a little girl Kokila and her mother Latha Kannan were waiting to present a poem written by Kokila on Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi went near the little girl Kokila. He would have either received the poem or was about to receive the same, and at that moment the hideous battery switch was clewed by the assassin herself. Suddenly the pawn bomb got herself blown up as the incendiary device exploded with a deadening sound. All human lives within a certain radius were smashed to shreds. In a twinkle, 18 human lives were turned into fragments of flesh among which included the former Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi and his personal security men. This was the crux of the prosecution case.

It was accidental that the investigation team got a lead to the involvement of the LTTE in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. After a long and detailed investigation process led by a top Police officer, D R Karthikeyan, twenty six accused were charged and put to trial. But by the time the police could trace them out, Sivarasan and other LTTE activists, who too were in hiding with him, ended their lives by consuming cyanide capsules.



We had to hear both the sides at length not only because of the capital punishment given to as many as twenty six persons but there were 129 witnesses, more than thousand documents and twenty six long confession statements to examine. It became the biggest case I have come across in my entire career in the judicial system. The then additional solicitor generalM.Altaf Ahammed was representing the prosecution.Many senior and junior lawyers were present to help him. Investigating officers including Karthikeyan were present in the court all the days. N.Natarajan, former solicitor general and a leadinglawyer in Tamilnadu was appearing for the accused. There were several other lawyers too.Arguments lasted for almost four months. I am writing this to point out an incident happened during the hearing of the appeal.

The investigating officers had seized several documents and materials including Indian currency worth forty lakhs from the accused when they arrested them from various hide outs. When this matter came up during the hearing, I raised a question. “All of the accused are LTTE activists came from Sri Lanka. I can understand them having a few Sri Lankan currency with them. But, a huge sum of Indian money, amounting to forty Lakhs- a huge amount in that period-was seized from them. It should be understood that some financially powerful forces have helped them. Have your investigation provided any information on them?”After consulting at length to Karthikeyan, who was present in the court room Solicitor general Altaf Ahammed told me that he can answer the question only on the next day.

The next day, when the hearing began, Mr.Altaf Ahammed stated this “I am sorry that the investigating officers have not yet been able to find out which source this Indian currency came from”. The answer perplexed me I had shared my concerns with the other Judges on the bench. No doubt,this was major flaw happened in the course of investigation and I was convinced that the probe was incomplete at least in this count.

After hearing, when the case was posted for the final order,one of my companion judges asked, whether I could consider not to criticize the team that investigated the case in detail and successfully. I shared my view to them that it would be better not to praise the team either, in the judgment, if at all we avoid criticism.  We wrote separate judgment in the case. I was very particular,not to include any comment about the investigating team, either praise or critique. On the other hand Justice Wadhwa, in his judgment showered great praise on the investigators. It was the second headlines in most of the newspapers that the Supreme Court showered praises on the investigating officer.  This change from my brother judge was least expected by me.  But I kept my composure without disclosing my discomfiture. Our judgment convicted seven of the accused and set free the remaining nineteen. Later, I came to read an interview of Ranganath, accused number 26 of the case, in ‘The Week’. This is what he had said to the correspondent of that magazine. “When we were arrested I had disclosed that it was Chandraswamy who gave us rupees forty lakhs, during the interrogation. The officer who was interrogating me got furious and asked me whether I did not know Chandraswamy’s influence on the incumbent Prime Minister of the country, Chandrasekhar. I was cautioned to keep mum”.

When I was reading the interview of the accused in The Week, I was thinking of the answer that the solicitor general and the lead investigator gave to my question about the money in the court room. That sense of anguish still prevails in my mind.

Chandraswamy’s role in Rajiv Gandhi assassination case never came up for investigation at all. I still believe it is a blot on the Indian criminal procedure system.

Justice KT Thomas is a former Judge of Supreme Court of India.

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