This Week in History

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This Week in History
21 May 1991: LTTE human bomb assassinates Rajiv Gandhi

  Mallika Joseph
Adjunct Professor, NIAS

On 21 May 1991, a female Black Tiger of the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, forever changing the course of history in the subcontinent. 

What happened on 21 May 1991
10.20 pm. Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu

Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi arrived just a few minutes earlier to campaign for the Lok Sabha candidate from Sriperumbudur, about 40 kilometres from Chennai. He arrived late, yet an unwavering crowd waited for him. At the venue, thousands had gathered, and stringent security measures were in place. The men were frisked with metal detectors and allowed inside the open ground, while the women, due to the lack of metal detectors, were checked briefly and allowed in. 

Even as Rajiv Gandhi was jostled by the crowd welcoming him with garlands, the police had great difficulty keeping them away. Rajiv Gandhi gestured to the police not to push the people. In the melee, a woman placed her sandalwood garland around Rajiv Gandhi’s neck and bent down to touch his feet in the customary show of respect for elders. There was a deafening sound. As the smoke lifted, there was no sign of life around where Rajiv Gandhi had been standing. Along with him, fifteen others died on the spot, including nine policemen. 

A human bomb, a 22-year-old identified later as LTTE cadre Dhanu, had killed Rajiv Gandhi.

Events that led to Rajiv Gandhi assassination
The 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Accord signed between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President JR Jayawardene paved the way for the 13th Amendment, a crucial political framework for the devolution of power in Sri Lanka, and also the deployment of the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka to militarily put an end to the civil war between the Sri Lankan military forces and the Tamil rebels, principally the LTTE. Despite incurring heavy initial casualties, the IPKF began to have an impact on the LTTE until it was withdrawn at the request of the newly elected Sri Lankan government. The last contingent of the IPKF left Sri Lanka in 1990. 

To the LTTE leadership, it was clear that if Rajiv Gandhi returned to power in the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, he would redeploy the IPKF, which was now familiar with the LTTE’s tactics and operational strategies. Any confrontation with the IPKF could, therefore, be a potential military disaster for the LTTE. Consequently, it was in LTTE’s existential interest to prevent Rajiv Gandhi from coming to power. The result was his assassination by a female Black Tiger (suicide wing of the LTTE).

The investigation, trial, and release
Immediately following the assassination, a Special Investigation Team (SIT) was set up within the Central Bureau of Investigation. Within the SIT, four teams were formed with specific tasks. While one team was in charge of intelligence and tracking the remaining members of the LTTE assassination team who were on the run, a second team interviewed witnesses and handled the formal aspects of the investigation. A third team liaised and coordinated the activities of the other team, and a fourth team was set up to interrogate the suspects. Within three months, on August 19, the SIT cornered the two remaining members of the LTTE assassination team, who took their lives consuming cyanide. By this time, most of the supporters and sympathisers who had harboured and facilitated the LTTE assassination team had been arrested. On the first anniversary of the assassination, the chargesheet was submitted in a specially designated TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act) court against 41 accused, including 3 absconding and 12 who had committed suicide. Twenty-six accused were in custody. The TADA court sentenced all 26 to death. The Supreme Court upheld the death sentences of three main conspirators while commuting the death sentence to life and lesser sentences for others; eventually, the death sentences for the main conspirators, too, were commuted to life sentences. On 11 November 2013, more than three decades after their arrest, six remaining convicts who had served life sentences for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi were released. 

Just as in the assassinations of key political leaders such as John F Kennedy and even in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, conspiracy theories abound on who did it and why. But most of these conspiracies have remained just theories. The SIT, its investigation, and the prosecution that followed proved beyond doubt the role of the LTTE in the assassination, clearly establishing its motive and method through evidence. 

The Fallouts of Rajiv Gandhi Assassination: From 1991 to 2024
The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi has had a telling effect on the political history of the subcontinent, particularly that of India and Sri Lanka. 

For the LTTE, it signalled the beginning of the end. Internationally, the assassination dealt a severe blow to the cause espoused by the LTTE. Within India, particularly in Tamil Nadu, the impact was even more severe. The political wing of the LTTE had set up an extensive network in Tamil Nadu, facilitating medical help for wounded cadres, handling propaganda, securing funds, and recruiting supporters and sympathisers from among the local population. The assassination was carried out by the intelligence wing of the LTTE. Following the assassination, the intelligence wing relied on the political wing’s network to help hide the remaining LTTE members of the assassination team. The investigation into the assassination exposed all these networks, safe houses, sympathisers, supporters, and propaganda machinery, bringing an abrupt halt to all activities of the political wing in Tamil Nadu. The LTTE lost its logistic network. 

With the assassination, the LTTE also lost all its popular support in Tamil Nadu. Until then, people in Tamil Nadu did not differentiate between the LTTE and its cause—Tamil Eelam (homeland for the Tamils). These were not synonymous anymore. Much later, when the LTTE was militarily being taken out by the Sri Lankan Army, key intelligence inputs were relayed by India, decisively changing the course of the battle against the LTTE. As a consequence of assassinating Rajiv Gandhi, LTTE lost the support of the Indian government, which had been key in the initial years of its formation.

Many analysts have blamed the rise of hardline politicians in Sri Lanka on the LTTE, principally because they eliminated all moderate voices within the Sri Lankan Tamil as well as Sri Lankan Sinhalese political spectrum. Perhaps then, what we see in Sri Lanka today is an outcome of what successive Sri Lankan governments did to the Tamils and what LTTE did to Sri Lankan politics. In a similar vein, one cannot but wonder if the current political landscape in India, devoid of a strong opposition against populist and polarising debates and mired in myriad shades of democratic deficit, would have been different if Rajiv Gandhi had not been assassinated.

The 13th Amendment continues to be the aspirational goal for those seeking a resolution of the conflict in Sri Lanka.

Though the war ended in 2009 with the LTTE being militarily defeated by the Sri Lankan Army, peace remains elusive. A glimmer of hope has been the historic Himalaya Declaration inked between representatives of the Tamil diaspora and senior Buddhist monks (the two extremes in the conflict) in 2023. 

Among other things, the Himalaya Declaration calls for “Arriving at a new constitution that guarantees individual and collective rights and promotes equality and equal citizenship among all peoples, ensures accountable institutions and guarantees adequate devolution of powers to the provinces, and until such time focus on the faithful implementation of provisions of sharing of powers in the existing constitution.” 

The Himalaya Declaration has paved the way for bridging the chasm between extreme viewpoints in Sri Lanka—the delegates representing the Tamil diaspora and the Buddhist monks issued a joint statement (the first of its kind) condemning the attack against Tamils during Mahasivaratri in March 2024. In another first, on 17 May 2024, a hugely successful joint commemorative event termed “Turning Point” was held at the heart of Colombo in memory of all those who died in the war that ended in 2009; 18 May is usually observed as a day of sorrow by Tamils in the north and the east, while the Sri Lanka government observes 19 May as the Victory Day. 

Perhaps the tides are finally changing.


About the Author

Mallika Joseph is a Adjunct Faculty at NIAS. She is also a Visiting Fellow at CPR. Being part of the international relations and security team, her focus is on security sector, human security, conflict prevention and peacebuilding, regional architectures and global governance.

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