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October 14, 1999


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The Rediff Interview/ P Chandra Sekharan

'The conclusion was a belt-bomb carried by a woman'

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Was it a basket bomb? Had it been hidden under the dais from which Rajiv Gandhi made his last speech? Who planted it there and how?

 Dr P Chandra Sekharan
A nation rocked by the brutal killing of a national leader speculated wildly as Dr
P Chandra Sekharan (, then director of the Tamil Nadu Forensic Sciences Department, rushed to the scene. He worked quietly. Two days later, the first pieces of conclusive information came from him: the bomb had been worn as a belt and jacket by a woman who was in a green salwar-kurta, and she had been bending over to touch her target's feet when she ignited it.

The forensic laboratory with 34 staff members had only one unit at Madras when Dr Sekharan took over as director. During his tenure, the main laboratory of five divisions was expanded into a comprehensive one with 14 divisions, six regional laboratories and 26 mobile ones covering the entire state.

Now Dr Sekharan, who has handled over 100,000 cases, has moved to Bangalore, where he works as a professor of forensic science at the National Law School. He is also a consultant to the Central Bureau of Investigation and Bangalore police. He spoke to M D Riti at his new house in Yelahanka satellite town about the assassination that shook the world and some of his other sensational cases.

On the Rajiv Gandhi case:

The crime was committed before the whole world as there was so much media present there and so many photographs taken just before and immediately after the bomb blast. Yet nobody was able to determine just what had occurred. That's why it is necessary that every major crime scene is investigated by a trained criminalist, not a police officer. This is the system in vogue abroad.

I was an independent forensic expert not functioning directly under the police, but heading a department that is directly under the home ministry of the Tamil Nadu government. The police requested me to help on this one. I had 200 scientists working under me, functioning as a statewide network. But since this was a sensational crime, with international ramifications, I decided to handle it personally.

I tried to go that night itself, but could not because of the road blocks and the riots taking place all over the city. When I reached the scene in the morning, the police had cordoned it off. The newspapers had offered four theories:

a. The bomb was buried under the red carpet

b. It was hidden in a basket in which flower petals were carried to be strewn in Rajiv Gandhi's path

c. The bomb was thrown at him from some distance

d. It was hidden in a garland that someone offered him

 The flower basket that led
 to the basket bomb theory
I debunked the basket bomb theory straightaway because if that had been true, the basket should have been blasted into several pieces, and not remained intact as it had. The carpet too was intact and there was no crater underneath it, so that theory was out. Normally, when a bomb explodes, it will have a force in all 360 degrees, so it was not possible that the bomb had been thrown from somewhere else on to the ground near Rajiv Gandhi. As for the garland that we picked up from the scene, it was a small sandalwood one with a small stick at the neck to keep it in shape. It's very difficult to hide a bomb in that.

When I inspected all the 18 bodies including Rajiv Gandhi's -- 17 bodies had been identified -- there was one which was just an assembling of dismembered parts. From the hair and smooth skin, the absence of body hair, it was obvious that it was a female. I even correlated minor details like the same nail polish on finger and toenails. Only the head, the left forearm and two lower limbs were there, including some torn portions. The entire right hand and trunk of the body were missing. That gave me a clue that this was a woman who was a human bomb.

  Remains of the denim vest
When we searched further, I found pieces of a denim vest with velcro fastenings. This gave me an indication that the bomb might have been carried in an abdominal belt. You see, when I had been in England for a month on a case some time before, I had bought a similar vest with a velcro fastening. The final conclusion was a belt-bomb carried by a woman.

This was confirmed by the photographs taken immediately after the blast. The bodies were all lying in a geometrical fashion or in lotus petal arrangement, all the feet pointing towards the centre. Normally, when human beings are knocked about above their centre of gravity, say in the chest, they fall flat. All the people standing around Rajiv had fallen around in a circle, so I concluded that that the explosion occurred at a height of about three-and-a-half feet above the ground level.

Further examination revealed that the woman's face was intact, so that anyone who had known her would be able to recognise her. But her scalp was avulsed, that is the fleshy portion of the back of the head was stripped off, exposing her skull neatly. This indicated that the explosives were worn on the back of her belt only. If they had been all around her waist, then the tangential force would have also stripped off her face beyond recognition. When I examined her wearing apparel, I found her salwar was intact, while the kameez and dupatta, as well as her bra, were torn to pieces. The bra was fused with the denim vest, making it obvious that she had worn the vest between her bra and her kameez.

 Rajiv Gandhi's shoes by
 which his body was
If she had been standing erect when she ignited the bomb, her salwar should have been torn to pieces, particularly at the back, but it was intact. So it looked as if she had been bending over from the waist, as if to touch Rajiv's feet. Then I applied some of my knowledge of human behaviour to the situation. In our country, it is common that if someone bends suddenly to touch your feet, you will reflexively try to stop them from doing so. This is what Rajiv was doing, so his face was exactly above her back and was completely blown off. His frontal face bones were thrown 100 metres away. His body was cremated without frontal face bones. His back was intact.

By studying these injuries, I was able to put up real live models and determine the position in which she was bending over, and how he was positioned over her. It took me just 24 hours to draw these conclusions. We also determined that the explosive used was RDX, that is, the research and development explosive developed in American laboratories for military use. It is a semisolid explosive that is like chappati dough and can be moulded to any shape. It is very dangerous, but does not ignite until you heat it to 197 degrees. It explodes at a detonating force of 29,000 feet per second and burns in one by ten-thousandth of second. The instantaneous burning makes it detonate at a very high velocity. It does not need any kind of shell or covering like a grenade.

 The belt-bomb
The people who made this belt-bomb had embedded it with 2 mm steel pellets, roughly about 10,000 (we recovered about 6000, and many are still living with these pellets embedded in them) in number. The idea of these pellets was that they would fly at a velocity of 29,000 feet per second in all directions, and add to the damage done. So many pellets were recovered from Rajiv's body during the post-mortem and are in the museum in Delhi now. However, they could not use too much RDX as the bomb was a belt-type and had to escape police detection, so the blast did not blow all the bodies to pieces.

As for how Dhanu the assassin escaped detection and got close to Rajiv, she joined the crowd from one end, after the permitted people had all been screened by metal detectors, because her belt carried batteries, detonators, wiring and pellets. She just joined the queue from the side. The police tried to prevent her, but the VIP [Rajiv] himself said to allow her in. He is supposed to have said something like "Relax, baby," to the woman sub-inspector who wanted to prevent her from coming in.

I was in charge of this whole crime scene until the CBI came in, so the film from [photographer] Haribabu's camera [who died in the blast] was developed in my laboratory. As soon as I saw photographs of this woman in a green dress in the pictures, I was able to say conclusively that this was the lady who had been the human bomb. It was not for me to find out who she was or whom she represented, but the identification of Dhanu and Sivarasan definitely helped the police to start solving the conspiracy angle of the crime.

It took me six months to produce a full crime scene reconstruction document. I used many photographs taken by press photographers just before and immediately after the crime.

On the Auto Shankar multiple murder case of Madras:

This man had chopped the bodies of his victims into small piece, kept them in the centre of the hall of his small house and burnt them to ashes. He threw those ashes into the boating canal near Mahabalipuram. Then he cleaned out his whole house. Because he had burnt the bodies with petrol, the walls were full of soot. So he whitewashed the whole area.

My experts who went there said they could not find any evidence of his having burnt anything. So I went there myself. I climbed up a ladder and made a diamond shaped scraping off the ceiling. In that cross-section I found first the new distemper, then the soot particle layer. I also noticed that there was open wiring, which he had covered over again with distemper. When I took out the clips and removed the wire, I found soot underneath again. Smoke enters into all crevices depositing soot everywhere. This was clinching evidence that he had burnt the bodies there.

I had to establish the identity of all the bodies of his victims by using a device that I invented myself, called the electronic skull identification device. It is also known as video super imposition of skull and face. I compare the skull with photographs of the faces of the living person, using a wiping technique, by which you superimpose the face image on the skull, electronically strip the flesh and see if the two skulls match perfectly. If they don't, the device will point it out at once. This device was used in the identification of Sivarasan, Subha and others after the Konanakunte incident when they killed themselves.

The lower court accepted my opinion and convicted Shankar. But the high court questioned how superior my technique was over the old methods. It ordered the device itself to be presented in court. The Madras high court library was converted into a courtroom. When I was demonstrating my device, the defence counsel challenged me. He himself tried the device in front of the judges, and found that I was right!

This technique was used by my student Dr Kumari to get Swami Shraddhananda convicted on the charges of killing his wife Shakereh. The Karnataka high court paid high encomiums for the technique used, and this was the clinching evidence in this case too, proving that the body found was that of Shakereh.

On the taxi driver serial murders of Tamil Nadu:

A gang of car thieves had established a routine of hiring taxis in different cities of Tamil Nadu to travel to some other city. They would kill the drivers en route, dispose off their bodies by the roadside, take the cars to some other cities and sell them at huge profits. When they were finally caught, the case could only be clinched after I was able to find that in the last murder they committed, they had shot the driver while he was driving, causing the car to careen into some bushes, which had scratched its body paint.

Although the thieves had subsequently painted the body over, I was able to remove the surface paint with special thinner and display the scratches. We also found the particular bushes that had scratched it and the paint residue on its branches. Then, I helped the police identify all the other stolen cars and the dead drivers so that the case could stand in court.

On the Parthur Nataraja case of a stolen antique idol:

This was an unusual case of idol theft with international ramifications. My grandfather was a sculptor, so I have some knowledge of shilpashastra and Indian archaeology. But applying this knowledge to forensics was a different issue altogether.

As you know, the Chola bronzes of our old Shiva temples of Tamil Nadu are exquisite and priceless. They are almost life-size, and are always in a set of 14 idols. Some thief stole this entire set from a well-known temple in Tamil Nadu, buried 13 of the idols and sold only the big Shiva/Nataraja for a paltry sum. This idol eventually found its way to England, and was sold from there to a Canadian firm for several thousand pounds.

Meanwhile, the petty thief here was caught in the act of trying to sell the other idols. The idols were dug out and brought to me. I started trying to determine whether the soil traces adhering to the idol were the same as existed near the temple from which the idol was stolen and where they were subsequently buried.

Our police alerted Interpol about the missing idol. Scotland Yard traced the idol to a British museum, where the Canadian buyers had given the idol for curing, and seized it. They sent us detailed descriptions of the seized idol, like measurements, weight and sculpture details. I found termite galleries within all the idols that I had. Then, I had a termite expert in England check out the one there, and we found that identical galleries existed. The buyers insisted that they had bought the idol from some family in Punjab before Partition. But the termite expert and I could prove that these were peculiar termites -- their dead bodies still existed within the stolen idol -- that existed only in the Tanjore region of Tamil Nadu!

Besides, no family will keep an idol that size at home as it would be considered unlucky: this size is only used in temples. I had to give evidence in the Royal high court of London for a fortnight before I could regain the stolen bronze.

On the importance of thoroughly examining a scene of crime immediately after:

In my three decades of experience in this field, visiting the crime scene was one of my greatest specialities. I was trained in this by an expert in Austria. You can cull so many physical clues from a crime scene. When I was assistant director, there were sudden fires in over 90 huts in and around Madras. The police were quite merciless, and insisted that I should visit every single hut that was burnt down, as the DMK government led by C N Annadurai had just taken over in Tamil Nadu and the slum huts were a major vote bank for that government. I was quite young and enthusiastic myself at that time. There were rumours that enemies of Anna were throwing phosphorus on the huts.

However, I noticed certain common features in every hut. There were open wick chimneys and household valuables had carefully been taken some distance away from the spot in which there had been a fire. We tested for phosphorous and found that negative. So I deduced that these were not fires caused by any outside agency, but by the householders themselves, because Anna had announced a compensation of Rs 500 per hut burnt down.

The police were shocked by the conclusion. So I went directly to Anna, who asked me how this problem could be solved. I suggested to him that he should book four of those hut-dwellers for negligence in putting out the fire, and the whole problem would be solved. He did that and it was!

On how he set up a disputed paternity centre, the first of its kind in India:

Often men live with women for years amongst the poorer sections in India, and then desert them, saying that they were never legally married. Even before DNA testing was developed, we started a paternity testing centre in Madras more than 20 years ago, whereby we used the human leukocyte antigen to test paternity. We set up this centre without even government sanctions, to help such women. We would not charge the poor, only those rich people who wanted tests made for property or money reasons.

Almost immediately, we got a strange case of an IAS officer from Andhra Pradesh who felt that his parents were not really his biological parents, and so he could not form an emotional bond with them. Many people had told him that he did not look like either of them, and that had sowed the seeds of doubt in his mind.

He brought those poor people down for blood and other tests. I told him that I would do the tests only if he promised that the outcome would not affect his relationship with his parents adversely. Our tests proved beyond any doubt that they were actually his biological parents!

'They are innocents. We'll do anything to free them.'

'I have to defend the innocent'

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