UPSC Exam Preparation: This Day in History – May 21

21 May 1991

Rajiv Gandhi assassination


What happened?

Former Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in a suicide bombing incident at Sriperumbudur, a town panchayat near the city of Chennai. The assassination was carried on by the members of the LTTE.

Rajiv Gandhi Assassination Background

  • The former Prime Minister was campaigning for the impending elections in the southern parts of the country. On 21st May, 1991, he had arrived in Chennai via air from Vishakhapatnam where he had been campaigning. Then, he was driven to Sriperumbudur in a car.
  • As he was walking towards the dais at a campaign rally, he was thronged by a lot of well-wishers. There were party workers as well as school children among them.
  • Thenmozhi approached him and greeted him at about 10:21 PM. She then bent down as if to touch his feet when she detonated an RDX-laden belt which she was wearing.
  • The explosion that followed killed Gandhi, the assassin and 25 other people.
  • All this was captured on camera. Though the cameraman died in the explosion, his camera was found intact from the site.
  • Rajiv Gandhi was 46 years old. His body was taken to Delhi and then cremated on 24th Many people attended his cremation including dignitaries from about 60 foreign countries.
  • Thenmozhi, a.k.a Dhanu, the suicide bomber, was a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the terrorist organisation that was waging a civil war in Sri Lanka over the issue of a separate homeland for the Tamils of the island nation.
  • A few years back before the assassination, the Rajiv Gandhi government had sent an Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka in 1987 with a view to diffuse the tensions between the LTTE and the government of Sri Lanka.
  • This was done partly, in order to pacify the separatist demand in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and partly, to avoid a potential refugee crisis in the southern part of the country.
  • However, the move backfired as the IPKF was drawn into the quagmire and found themselves fighting the Tigers instead of trying to persuade them to disarm. The IPKF was withdrawn in 1990.
  • Rajiv Gandhi had said in an interview in 1990 to a magazine that he would send the IPKF again to Sri Lanka if he was elected back to power. He had also defended the Indo-Sri Lanka accord. It is believed that the LTTE decided to kill him to prevent him from getting back to power.
  • There were many security lapses that led to the killing as well. The former prime minister was himself warned to avoid Tamil Nadu as there could be a threat to his life.
  • The CBI took over the investigation after one day of the assassination. It created a Special Investigation Team (SIT) led by D.R. Karthikeyan to probe the incident. The SIT concluded that the LTTE was involved in the attack.
  • 26 people were arrested and tried under TADA for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. In 1998, the TADA court in Chennai awarded death sentences to all the 26 including a woman who was only 17 years old when she was arrested. This sentence created a sensation in the country. Human rights activists alleged that the trial was not free and fair as it was held behind closed doors and the identity of the witnesses used was not revealed.
  • After an appeal to the Supreme Court, the death penalties of only 4 of the accused were upheld and the rest were awarded various prison sentences.
  • The four people sentenced to death were Nalini, Murugan, Perarivalan and Santhan. In 2000, Nalini’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
  • The other three were scheduled to be executed in September 2011, but he Madras High Court stayed the execution.

See previous ‘This Day in History’ here.

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