As assassinations go, Rajiv Gandhi’s horrendous killing on a dry lake bed at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu on the night of May 21, 1991 stands out for many reasons.

It was the first time a top leader had been targeted by a human bomb. In the two famous political assassinations in India prior to that - Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 and Indira Gandhi in 1984 - the killers had used their guns to bring down their targets. And they were immediately nabbed or killed in retaliatory firing. In the case of Rajiv Gandhi, the assassin had blown herself to bits – hence her identity remained a mystery initially.

The SIT took more than a month to fix the identity of the other perpetrators though the needle of suspicion had fixed on the LTTE, which had a motive to stop Rajiv Gandhi from returning to power and enforce the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord it had resisted. But painstaking investigations and frustrating police work by the SIT and Tamil Nadu police, which the author narrates in detail, saw the SIT file its charge sheet before the first anniversary of the assassination.

It is this back story of how Rajiv Gandhi’s killers were uncovered, identified and nabbed that forms the crux of Anirudhya Mitra’s book, 90 Days – The True Story of the Hunt for Rajiv Gandhi’s Assassins. As a reporter for India Today, who reported the SIT’s probe into the modus operandi of the assassination and the conspiracy behind it on a fortnightly basis (the magazine came out every 15 days), Mitra manages to come up with a page turner even though it has been published thirty years after the dastardly event.

Though he refers to himself in third person as Anirudhya throughout the book, just like other characters like the SIT members or the assassins, the writer’s ability to give a fly on the wall account of the investigations makes for gripping reading. What he lacks in fluent prose he makes up with solid facts. There are some unintended gaffes too as he writes about ordering a non-veg thali from an Udupi café!

Key conspirator

The book nails one big lie that apologists of Perarivalan – a key conspirator who was recently released by the Supreme Court – had been touting for more than two decades now. That the youngster was an unwitting and innocent cog used by the main conspirators, Sivarasan and Murugan, and his only guilt was in procuring two nine-volt batteries to power the belt bomb that the assassin, Dhanu, would trigger. That he had no knowledge of how and where the batteries would be used.

“Peraribalan (that is how Mitra spells his name) finally talked. He confessed to having worked out an original design for a vest bomb. In design, six grenades would be fitted into it – the grenades would be made of less than 100 gms of RDX wrapped around 2,800 splinters adjusted within a casing of TNT. The six grenades would be wired in parallel and the circuit could be activated by two toggle switches, one for arming the system and the other for triggering the explosions. Peraribalan’s ingenuity ensured that the device could be charged with a one-piece battery of 9 volts”

“Peraribalan confessed that he had presented his design of the bomb to Sivarasan and got his approval. Sivarasan told him to look for a tailor who could stich the vest that would hide the bomb. After the jacket was ready, Peraribalan fit the bomb into it. Both he and Murugan felt the bomb was ready for use and Sivarasan approved it.”

With such detailed description about Peraribalan’s active role, Mitra demolishes the fanciful theory that the youngster had no knowledge about the conspiracy, the intended target or any hand in the modus operandi.

The book details the frustrating misses the SIT encountered while hunting for the inner core of the LTTE’s team. The mysterious death of Shanmugam, a key operative while in police custody in Vedaranyam, proved a huge setback and dented the credibility and competence of the SIT, Mitra recalls.

Similarly, the last minutes of the plot leading up to the bomb blast and how the assassins responded in the immediate aftermath are narrated in gripping fashion. Sivarasan repeatedly tried to get hold of the Chinon camera of Haribabu who had gone with the killers but had died in the blast, knowing well that it would contain incriminating evidence. It showed Dhanu, Sivarasan, Nalini and Subha prior to the blast and even the very moment of the blast..

Precise details

Mitra points out how the film roll from Haribabu’s camera helped the SIT to put faces to the key conspirators giving the SIT the much-needed start in the first week after the assassination. And how the team tracked and followed all the other key players of the plot. How a small diary that Sivarasan had buried in his hideout in Kodungaiyur would allow the investigators to unlock the conspiracy. With such precise details the book keeps the reader intrigued.

The final chapters of the book focuses on the hunt for the mastermind Sivarasan, the one-eyed Jack and his team members, including Subha. The book reveals how Sivarasan floated a number of lookalikes of him to roam the country or floated a transmitter on an empty boat in the Pulicat lake just to mislead the investigators. Sivarasan’s presence in Bengaluru came to light more out of good luck than any investigation as the Bangalore police stumbled upon a group of injured LTTE cadres outside the city which in turn led to the mastermind’s safe house in Konanakunte.

But rather than the surprise attack that the SIT had planned, to nab Sivarasan and co alive, it had to become part of an elaborate circus due to the incompetence, ego of the Bengaluru police and total lack of coordination with them. By the time the NSG team stormed the house all its occupants, including Sivarasan and Subha, were dead, Mitra points out.

One angle that Mitra broaches through the book is if the LTTE was acting on its own or was merely an instrument at the hands of bigger international forces. The names of Mossad and CIA are bandied about but the SIT chose not to look beyond the LTTE as SIT Chief DR Karthikeyan did not want to expand the scope of the probe. A few of his fellow officers like Amit Verma and Amod Kanth though firmly believed otherwise, says Mitra. Another interesting nugget is how the IB chief informs then Prime Minister Chandrashekhar that Kittu alias Krishnakumar, another deputy of Prabhakaran, was actually an informant of India’s intelligence agencies.

Most of the conspirators and planners, including LTTE Chief Prabahkaran, and his intelligence chief Pottu Amman may be dead but six of the seven assassins are still in Indian prisons undergoing life imprisonment. When they attempt to follow Perarivalan’s path to freedom the public focus on Rajiv’s killers will once again perk up.

(The reviewer, senior journalist GC Shekhar, was an eyewitness to Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and was also a witness for the prosecution as he along with other journalists had seen Haribabu and Sivarasan at the venue before the event)

Check out the book on Amazon

90 Days–The True Story of the Hunt for Rajiv Gandhi’s Assassins

Anirudhya Mitra

Harper Collins

Rs 599 (243 pages)