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May 14, 1999


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The Rediff Interview/ D R Karthikeyan

'18 people died in the attack. So why can't 26 convicted hang for it?'

D R Karthikeyan, the man who probed the Rajiv Gandhi assassination

Former Central Bureau of Investigation director and head of the Special Investigation Team that probed the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, D R Karthikeyan has a lot to be proud of. He completed the job in record time -- less than a year -- and was able to get the 26 he found guilty convicted. Though the Supreme Court upheld the death sentences to only four of them, its judgment praised Karthikeyan and his team.

The most unusual endorsement for Karthikeyan's ability came from one of the guilty, Dixon, a Liberation Tiger of Tamil Ealam wireless operator, who took his own life as his hideout was being raided by investigators.

"I appreciate your efficiency, Mr Karthikeyan," said Dixon's suicide-note.

After retiring as CBI chief last year, Karthikeyan was asked to head investigations of another sort: as the director-general (investigations) at the National Human Rights Commission. At his office in Delhi, he spoke to Suhasini Haidar two days after the Supreme Court verdict was pronounced.

What is your reaction to the SC judgment that confirmed death only to 4 of the 26? Does it hurt that although the apex court praised your work, they ended up releasing 19 of the accused?

No, it doesn't hurt, and I would like to say at the outset that I genuinely believe that truth does prevail. My task was to find the truth behind Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. I did that. It is not for me to convict or acquit these people. After all, that is the process of law. If it was up to me to punish the guilty, then why bother with the trial court in Madras? Similarly, if the special court's judgment could not be overruled, then why would there be a process of appeals in the Supreme Court?

In any case, from what I understand of this judgment, the Supreme Court 3-judge bench has not said these people were not guilty. They have released them because in their opinion, they were not guilty of "an act of terror." And that is a matter of opinion. I mean, I might feel that Rajiv Gandhi was killed for decisions he took as the prime minister of this country, but they might feel it was a personal thing. And the fact is that they did convict 7 people.

The judgment also spoke of a "paucity of evidence". Were you satisfied with the extent of evidence produced during the investigations?

Look, my job was like that of a scientist in a laboratory. I can only find evidence that is already there. Me and my team worked 7 days a week, 20 hours a day for a whole year. We viewed 500 videocassettes, scanned thousands of photographs, and interrogated 5,000 people. All together, our evidence would probably fill this room. Whatever evidence was there, we produced that. But we couldn't concoct evidence, and I refused outright to allow any doubtful information, even if it was merely to help make "the truth appear to be true".

In fact, let me tell you that when I was asked by the (Union) government to take on the investigation on May 22, 1991 (the day after Gandhi's assassination), I was heading the Central Reserve Police Force in Hyderabad. As I was flying from Hyderabad to Delhi, there was only one thought in my mind, that please, let it not be the LTTE. Because, I had dealt with them before, and I knew how difficult it would be to catch any suspects alive.

It is a little known fact, but at the height of the Indian Peacekeeping Force's operations in Sri Lanka, the then Cabinet Secretary T N Seshan asked me to go to Sri Lanka, and give the government an unbiased view of the scenario on the ground. He said that they had very conflicting report from various intelligence agencies. They wanted my version of how well/badly the IPKF was doing. I went all over the island, wherever our jawans were -- to Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Jaffna. I studied the LTTE movement, their operations very closely. When I came back, I submitted my conclusions that either the IPKF should be recalled, or if we wanted to have a true accord in the region, we would have to speak to the LTTE.

However, events overtook us after that, and the Rajiv Gandhi government fell soon after. That is why I had this wishful thinking that I hope it wouldn't be the LTTE. But when I reached the scene at Sriperumbudur, I realised fairly soon that it was in fact the LTTE that had killed Rajiv, and at the end of my investigations, I also concluded that it was only the LTTE and nobody else that was involved.

In that conclusion, you differed with the Jain Commission, who felt there should be further investigations into the role of many outside influences, including the Mossad, the CIA, and godman Chandra Swami?

(Laughs.) Yes, but how can I comment on another agency's findings? I will say this, that if you feel that the LTTE would have done this at the behest of anyone else, if you think that the LTTE would have done this for money, then you do not know or understand the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. From my investigation, I can say I do, and I don't believe they are mercenaries. They are committed to their cause, and their operations are unlike that of any other terrorist organisation in the world.

I think the Jain Commission, in a sense, became the platform for political vendettas. Every political party used it to blame every other political party. I made it clear at the very beginning of my investigation, that I would brook no political interference whatsoever. That is possibly why we completed our entire investigations, found so many suspects, all within the space of one year.

To go back to the Supreme Court judgment, do you think it was due to the consideration that as many as 26 people had been sentenced to death? As a member of the National Human Rights Commission, do you feel more sensitive to the argument that hanging so many might be seen as "State-condoned massacre"?

No, that's ridiculous. Human rights doesn't mean supporting terrorists. Let me tell you, terrorists like the LTTE are the worst violators of human rights themselves. Besides, they didn't just kill the former prime minister of our country. He was at an election meeting, he unsuspectingly reached out for a garland, and they tricked him and killed him. Don't forget 17 other equally innocent people died in the blast. And what about the effect on our nation? You can't just look at numbers, but if you want to then 18 people died in the attack. So why can't 26 people, who have been convicted, hang for it?

Tell us about your work at the NHRC.

I was asked to come and work in this area after I retired. My commitment to the protection of human rights goes back a long way, much before it was such a catchword. Even at the beginning of the Rajiv investigation, I made two conditions to the government. One, as I have said was about no political interference. The second was that, no matter what, I would not allow or resort to third degree torture in my investigations.

My work as the director-general (investigations) at the NHRC carries enormous responsibilities. The scope of my investigations is much larger than in all my years before. It gives me a lot of satisfaction, as I feel it is really social work, and I can give relief to a lot of people through my work here.

In the past few years so many cases seem to have been filed with a great deal of public attention -- the hawala case, the Uphaar tragedy, the JMM bribery etc etc. And the recent media blitz that has surrounded the murder of former model Jessica Lal seems unprecedented. Yet at the end of many trials, the conviction rate of the police and the CBI is rather low. Why?

Let me say that police operations are really the most crucial to society, as they protect our lives. If the police is weak or lax, the society will become anarchical. That's why society must co-operate with them. I feel most of these high profile cases tend to degenerate to fire-fighting operations. There is a fire, it's very bright, and you try to put it out, but just then another fire flares up, perhaps even brighter, and then our attention is focused on that. And one must be guarded about speaking to the media during investigations.

I know how much my investigations have benefited from the press, but also how they can get derailed if unconfirmed details are given to them. So you must be sure of what you say, before you say it. But don't get me wrong, I am a firm believer in transparent investigations.

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