Book review: The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by Neena Gopal4 min read . Updated: 02 Sep 2016, 03:21 PM IST
An eyewitness account of an assassination that the writer says could have been prevented
Ramachandra Guha joked in the past that no event of extreme importance in India is complete without a goof-up. His India After Gandhi narrates a minor incident that happened on the night of 14 August 1947: As independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru went to submit his list of cabinet ministers to the then governor general and handed over an empty envelope; the piece of paper that had the names was missing.
A new book sheds light on a series of terrible goof-ups that transpired before 21 May 1991, the day Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. The book, written by journalist Neena Gopal, who was the last person to interview Rajiv Gandhi, lays bare how people at various levels were complicit in the assassination, starting from intelligence officers to Congress party officials to the country’s foreign policy makers and finally, Gandhi himself.
Gopal points out that a year before the assassination, Colonel Hariharan, India’s chief of military intelligence in Sri Lanka, had told the Intelligence Bureau in Chennai about the “Rajiv Gandhine marana podungo (bump off Rajiv Gandhi)" chatter within the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). They laughed it off and told him not to be stupid (though it was known that LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s style was to kill his assailants in a violent fashion). Neither the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), which considered several people up and down the LTTE ladder as its protégés, nor Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthy, the Congress chief in Tamil Nadu who had warned Gopal to “be very careful" while she was headed for the fateful rally, saw it coming.
The venue itself was so odd, the book argues. It meant unnecessarily dragging Gandhi from Chennai to a panchayat 50km away to attend an election rally of hardly any people. The same could be said about the security arrangements which couldn’t catch a 17-year-old girl who walked up to him weighed down by half a kilo of RDX, despite two metal detectors in place. To top it all, the former prime minister, who was known to have many threats on his life, had been left with only two gunmen (one was miles away in Hyderabad on that night), as successive prime ministers, V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar, withdrew his SPG security.
And then, of course, there is Gandhi himself, who, according to Gopal, did the absolutely wrong thing in Sri Lanka. He put boots on the ground in a neighbouring country where he was not welcome, and paid for it with his own life and that of thousands of others. The book is particularly revealing on Gandhi’s awareness of the circumstances. “Have you noticed how every time a South Asian leader of any import rises to a position of power or is about to achieve something for himself or his country, he is cut down, attacked, killed," the book quotes him as saying, some 45 minutes before he was killed.
There are only a few others who have written about the Gandhi assassination in such detail before. There’s Minhaz Merchant’s biography of Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, The End Of A Dream, and D.R. Karthikeyan’s The Rajiv Gandhi Assassination. But when Gopal puts it all together with original reporting, rich anecdotes and well-researched background, it almost makes one wonder how easy it was for Gandhi to die. After reading this, I’m almost tempted to say that forget LTTE, Gandhi could have died in an autorickshaw accident. But the author insists throughout the book that it is important to remember that Gandhi didn’t die in some freak accident.
In fact, while speaking to her, you see her consciously correcting herself each time she slips in the word “killed" or “passed away". “I wanted to mark it (the book’s release) with an event, like 25 years since he passed away. No, not passed away. Assassinated," she said while we were discussing the book in the Bengaluru office of Deccan Chronicle, which she now edits.
When asked of her insistence on the use of the word assassination, she replies it is to show that it was not an accident by any stretch of imagination. The fact that we could not prevent it shows how nobody knew the level of hatred Prabhakaran had for Rajiv Gandhi, which in turn reveals how Sri Lanka, or regional politics, is far away from the area of interest of the Delhi-centric political discourses in the country, says Gopal. “We are so obsessed with Pakistan that we haven’t actually enough explored about our neighbourhood," she says, “I think the common man knows so little except what you see on television about the relationship with Nepal or Bangladesh or Maldives or Bhutan."
Her comments explain why a significantly large section of the book is dedicated to the intricacies of India’s understanding of Sri Lanka and how we got it wrong. As Gopal puts it: “The message is that not enough is known about the Indian involvement in Sri Lanka and how Rajiv’s assassination was a direct fallout of the Sri Lankan blunder."
It’s rare for a reporter to become a part of a story she is reporting (in Gopal’s case, this has happened twice, since she was on the same bus when a suicide bomber unsuccessfully tried to kill Benazir Bhutto in October 2007). Certainly, however, Gopal’s tendency to be at the wrong place at the wrong time is a blessing for those interested in the country’s third biggest political assassination (after that of the other two Gandhis).
After all, as she reminds us, it was supposed to be just an interview.