Posted On South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG) website in 2009
LTTE and Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi
by Dr Geeta Madhavan
(The South Asia Analysis Group)
"It (India) must stop all military assistance given to Sri Lanka, remove the ban on our movement and recognise our struggle. I like to point out that our movement and our people are true friends of India." – B. Nadesan – LTTE political head in emailed interview to a magazine – Times of India 22 Nov. 2008
Almost everyone remembers the night of 21st May 1991 when the erstwhile Prime Minister Mr Rajiv Gandhi and leader of the Congress party was assassinated in a meticulously planned and well co ordinated violent act by a LTTE female suicide bomber as he went to address an election meeting in Sriperumbudur in the outskirts of the city of Madras. It did not matter whether one was a Congress party supporter or not, party affiliations were not relevant; what was pertinent was that a heinous and violent act was perpetrated by a foreign terrorist group on Indian territory. The citizens of India woke up next morning to the fact that a vile and horrible act had been committed against the nation itself. Analysts and experts woke up to the fact that international terrorism had arrived in India. The country had been grappling with militancy within its territory for quite some time and had developed a concerted and long term strategy to deal with it. What it did not expect was that a terrorist organisation would from across the borders act directly to shatter the Indian national unity and add a new dimension to terrorism against India.
India was drawn into the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka due to ethnic ties, strategic interests and geopolitical considerations. When the separatist Tamil movement started in Sri Lanka there were various organisations representing several groups espousing the aspirations of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. The moderate voices intermingled with the more militant voices in demanding rights for the marginalised Tamils who had suffered under successive repressive policies of the Sri Lankan governments. It is now well documented that there was support and sympathy for these movements in India especially in the state of Tamil Nadu where it was seen as protecting the interests of the Tamil brethren across the waters. Almost all the groups had well established bases in Tamil Nadu during that period. Subsequently, however, the most militant and the deadliest of them all, the LTTE systematically obliterated the leaders and key persons of the other outfits and the demand for a Tamil Eelam nation for the Tamils translated into a demand for a Prabhakaran-led Eelam. Relentlessly and with single mindedness the LTTE has pursued its dream of establishing a separate Tamil nation under its control on the island.
India became actively involved since the 1980s in the conflict in Sri Lanka and sought to create an atmosphere where the opposing factions could negotiate a peaceful settlement to the conflict. In 1985, the LTTE which had been part of the Eelam National Liberation Front along with the TELO, EROS and EPRLF participated in June 1985, in the talks sponsored by India held in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. Initiated by India, the leaders of the Tamil militant movements who were engaged in an armed struggle for the establishment of a separate Tamil Eelam state agreed to a cease-fire to create a congenial atmosphere for the talks. The LTTE, which was willing to settle for nothing less than an independent Eelam, was a reluctant participant. The LTTE sought to emerge as the sole repository of the Tamil aspirations and was wary of the possibility of the other groups of agreeing for something less than an independent Eelam. It was unwilling to share the power to control the destiny of the Tamils with the other Tamil outfits or fragment the sympathy and logistic support of the Tamil diaspora. Consequently, during 1985-86 the LTTE launched attacks on the other groups justifying its actions by calling them traitors to the cause of the Tamils. The LTTE efficiently eliminated opposition from other groups, growing stronger by killing the leaders and prominent members of those groups. Later, unwilling to accept India’s exhortation to enter into an agreement with the Sri Lankan government to find a permanent solution to the conflict, the LTTE leader Prabhakaran left India to establish himself in Jaffna.
The Indo Sri Lankan Accord signed in 1987 between India and Sri Lanka by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India and President J.R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka, and under its mandate, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was sent to Sri Lanka with the intention of restoring peace to the island torn by the war between the militant Sri Lankan Tamil nationalists and the Sri Lankan military forces. The military contingent , like peace keeping forces worldwide , was not sent in as a combat force - its mission specifically being to "guarantee and enforce cessation of hostilities" much in the spirit of the United Nations peace keeping forces sent to help countries all over the world torn by conflict create conditions for sustainable peace. As reluctant participants to the Accord, the LTTE was against Indian military intervention and abhorred the clause by which it was required to surrender weapons. Under the Accord although a large quantity of arms were surrendered by the LTTE, it was suspected that larger quantities were still being held. Over a period of time in internecine battles within Sri Lanka with rival militants the LTTE killed members of the other groups and emerged as a stronger organisation.
The IPKF by several turn of events in September and October 1987, became embroiled in direct confrontation with the LTTE .Consequently, the LTTE launched into vituperative attacks on the IPKF and in its publication A NationBetrayed alleged that by the Indo Sri Lankan Accord, India had completely negated Tamil hopes to serve its own geopolitical interests. It also set up effective propaganda against the IPKF alleging human rights violations. The IPKF operation resulted in the death of more than a thousand Indian soldiers and public opinion in India favoured withdrawal of the IPKF. The newly elected President of Sri Lanka R. Premadasa was against the presence of the IPKF in Sri Lanka and in April 1989 demanded the withdrawal of the IPKF within the timeframe of three months. The newly elected Indian Prime Minister Mr. V.P. Singh reviewed the Sri Lankan policies of Rajiv Gandhi and stating it a failure, ordered the withdrawal of the IPKF from Sri Lanka. With the change of governments in India and in Sri Lanka, the final withdrawal of IPKF took place in March 1990.
The LTTE exulted in the removal of the IPKF and eliminated Amirthalingam in 1989 when he expressed in an interview in July 1989 that that the IPKF should remain to ensure the safety and security of Tamils. After the withdrawal of the IPKF, LTTE became the sole power in the north-east of Sri Lanka – a triumphant step towards the establishment of Tamil Eelam. It was therefore, with trepidation that the LTTE watched the unfolding election scene in India in 1991. It was apparent that Rajiv Gandhi supported a solution to the conflict maintaining the unity and integrity of the Sri Lanka which was completely unacceptable to the LTTE’s single minded ambition for the establishment of a separate nation of Eelam. In the assumption that it was close to achieving its goal of independent Eelam and exulting in its control of the territory where it acted as the sole power, it viewed the return of Rajiv Gandhi to power in India as a severe impediment of its grandiose plans. Therefore, to prevent his return to power he had to be dealt with in a manner best known to the LTTE – by assassinating him. The LTTE pathological hatred for Rajiv Gandhi and his policies towards Sri Lanka involved the formulation of the plan, the movement into India of the LTTE personnel instructed to accomplish the act, the recruitment of local sympathisers, the elaborate preparation of the master plan, the intense and constant study of local congenial conditions, the monitoring of movements of the target and the final execution. Detailed examination of the events makes a chilling study of the capabilities of a ruthless terrorist organisation.
The tacit admission to the assassination finally came from the statement of Mr Balasingham in 2006 when in an interview he stated
" As far as that event is concerned, I would say it is a great tragedy, a monumental historical tragedy for which we deeply regret and we call upon the government of India and people of India to be magnanimous to put the past behind," .
On March 19, 2008 Priyanka [daughter of the late Rajiv Gandhi] met Nalini, one of the conspirators of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination in Vellore jail. Nalini is lodged in Vellore jail after her death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by a plea for clemency for the sake of the convict’s daughter by Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. Priyanka went on record accepting that she had met the killer of her father and stating that it was a personal meeting and clarified it further : "I do not believe in anger, hatred and violence and I refuse to allow these things to overpower my life," . Her action as an individual to come to terms with the personal tragedy does not in any manner dilute the grim truth that the nation was avenged only when the death sentences were handed down to the perpetrators of the assassination. The country had to bear the ignominy of being the victim of a terrorist organisation whose ideology it had understood, sympathised and supported. The sheer audacity of LTTE, with total disregard to the stability of the political and social structure of India and with the sole purpose of furthering its own delusion, to defiantly subject the nation to shame is unjustifiable. Despite Balasingham’s self serving appeal to Indians,(statement quoted above ), it is undeniable that the LTTE had carried out an act of aggression against the Indian nation.
The LTTE has encouraged elements in Tamil Nadu, where there is a deep sympathy for the humanitarian crisis in the island, to twist it into a support rally for the LTTE. It had, by the suicide bombing sought to manipulate the Indian political scene and in its propensity of self preservation wanted to manoeuvre the political destiny of India. It was not just the death of a prominent citizen of India – the violent act chose to cause permanent damage to the democratic system of India which allows the citizens to choose their representatives and their government. It also demonstrates the contempt the LTTE holds for the Indian nation and its people. The LTTE sought to impose upon the Indians a different choice by eliminating the person who it did not desire to return to power.
To seek to destroy the integrity of the Indian nation is unpardonable but to imagine that the nation will forgive the perpetrators of the act is to scoff at the national conscience.
(Dr. Geeta Madhavan is an analyst working in areas related to international security and Terrorism.