Adieu Raghothaman: Fiery officer who decoded Rajiv assassination riddle

From scratch, the SIT officer pieced together clues to find out the culprits in the sensational case

In his near four-decade-old career in the CBI, Raghothaman handled many high-profile and sensational cases

COVID has struck again, taking away one of our brilliant officers. Ragothaman, a brave and fiery officer, deserved police honours at his funeral, but sadly the pandemic protocol would not allow any such grand farewell.

Ragothaman was SP and Chief Investigating Officer in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, and handled the case brilliantly, securing a conviction for the accused and revealing the whole conspiracy behind the assassination. His death, at the age of 76 at a private hospital in Chennai, comes as a shock to all those who knew the officer.

On May 22, 1991, when India woke up to the tragic news of the late Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination at Sriperumbudur, Chennai, in that blast that killed 17 others too, there was no inkling of conspirators’ identity, modus operandi, or the motive. None had claimed responsibility and there were no arrests of accomplices which in most cases is the beginning point of the investigation into the crime.

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CBI’s Special Investigation Team (SIT) head DR. Karthikeyan was to admit later that it was a “blind case” as there were no clues or accomplices to interrogate and arrive at the truth.

K Ragothaman was appointed the SP and Chief Investigating Officer of the SIT team, and one of the first leads they pursued was a camera that was found at the assassination site but shifted to the Kancheepuram police station.

Ragothaman described it “as the hand of God” in a blind case as the camera had survived the RDX blast and thousands of pellets. There were also massive efforts by some persons, even some journalists, to retrieve the camera from the police station. It was a matter of luck or providence that the camera wasn’t handed over to them.

Within 48 hours, Ragothaman and his team gleaned the information that a photographer named Hari Babu had used the camera, while a photo studio, which claimed to have engaged him, said it had allowed him to use the camera and sought its return. When the colour roll was developed, the SIT team got the first set of photos till the time of the assassination.

Ragothaman pieced together information from the rough list of persons in the exclusive area, and those who were permitted to garland or present shawls to Rajiv Gandhi. Inquiries began about these persons, while later forensic experts came up with the belt bomb theory, employed by a female suicide bomber, judging from the severity of impact on her, and pieces of clothing that got stuck to the explosive. The SIT team established one of the persons in the list permitted to garland Rajiv as the suicide bomber.

Ragothaman and his team established from Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) videos and publicity material, confirmed by LTTE watchers, that this person was Dhanu of the in the investigation. Similarly, the motive for the assassination was also clearly established.

These were major breakthroughs in the case, established by the tireless work of the investigation team headed by Ragothaman. From there on, the hunt for the killers began, ending in arrests and suicides, and finally, the trial court convicted the accused.

This was a major victory for the SIT especially its CIO, Ragothaman, who organised and presented evidence in the court which could not be challenged by the defence. The SIT built an iron-clad case, backed by documentary and other evidence. All over the world, police agencies recognised and applauded the work of the Indian SIT.

Ragothaman later had to defend the verdict in the Supreme Court which too by and large accepted the reports of the investigation team and praised its work in the case.

Back home in Chennai, Ragothaman had to deal with fringe elements and groups which indirectly supported separatist tendencies, expressing overwhelming support to the LTTE and the accused in this case. A massive campaign was launched against the CBI with political motives, whipping up sympathy for the assassins while the families of those who died in the blast including policemen, being left out in the cold.

There were only some grudging remarks made by some sections of the defence for the accused that third-degree methods were not used by the SIT against the accused and witnesses. The SIT preferred to gather evidence and confront the accused with the evidence. Ultimately, the accused revealed their involvement and also outlined the conspiracy. Some of the accused also confirmed the identity of persons like Sivarasan, Dhanu, and Subha, etc.

However, Ragothaman did also mention areas of disagreement with the heads of CBI, including Karthikeyan over the denial of permission to question some politicians whose names cropped up during the investigation. Karthikeyan and others in the CBI apparently did not want questioning of politicians as it would derail the investigation and give it a political twist which would prevent the SIT from carrying out its work.

Also read: Rajiv Gandhi assassination case convict Nalini threatened to kill herself: Official

Ragothaman’s statements were misinterpreted by a section of the political spectrum in Tamil Nadu which tried to claim that the convicts in the Rajiv case were innocent and should be freed immediately. Ragothaman refuted their version and said even if the involvement of others should be examined and the wider conspiracy unveiled, it did not make the convicts in the case innocent, and that all of them were guilty of being part of the deep-rooted conspiracy behind the cold-blooded assassination.

Even at the height of the controversy over the role of the Rajiv case convicts, Ragothaman would bravely make statements, give interviews and take part in television debates, upholding the fairness of the trial and judgment against the convicts, and maintained that all of them were guilty and not innocent as claimed by a section of the media and political parties.

Anyone could walk up to his simple flat in Ashok Nagar in Chennai and meet him. Till the end, he never sought security for himself, though he seemed to be the target of fringe elements. He stuck to his routine in a brave manner, continuing to meet whoever chose to see him.

A recipient of the President’s Medal, Ragothaman brought out several books like Conspiracy to Kill Rajiv Gandhi in English and Rajiv Kolai Vazhakku in Tamil, Assassination of Mahatma-Indira-Rajiv Gandhis’, and Third Degree Crime Investigation Management: Crime and the Criminal. He also produced a documentary titled ‘Human Bomb’ based on the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.

In his book Assassination of Mahatma-Indira-Rajiv-Gandhis’,  Ragothaman pointed out the Indian security and investigation agencies had not learnt from the Mahatma Gandhi assassination. If so, it could have prevented Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The failures in the case of the Indira killing were not corrected, and this was manifest in the Rajiv case too.

The following extracts from the book are illuminating:

The combined study of all the three assassination cases would reveal that in spite of specific inputs available with Indian Intelligence agencies, they did nothing to prevent the occurrences.

In my view, the Indian police have never learnt lessons from the cases of assassination, and they will not because of their ego and non-cooperation and co-ordination among themselves.

 Nowhere in the world has both mother and her son been assassinated.

During interrogation, it came on evidence that the Intelligence Bureau (IB) had intercepted large volume of the LTTE wireless messages between Tamil Nadu and Jaffna. One of the officers who was intercepting the coded message informed his superior that the LTTE was planning a major operation and the urgency for decoding the message be on priority.

The decoding expert was based in Delhi and the request from Chennai office was not taken on priority and all the intercepted messages were kept in the file which was opened after the assassination of Rajiv in May 1991.

After the assassination of Rajiv, the messages were decoded and it was clear from the messages that the LTTE was planning for the assassination of Rajiv. 

Ragothaman in this book lists the various acts of omission by the IB and RAW in this case. His book should serve as an eye-opener to Indian police and investigation agencies. It should be prescribed as a book for study in the National Police Academy.

Those indicted in corruption and other cases get police and military honours in this country. Ragothaman’s funeral should be marked by police honours. But one cannot expect such selfless and brave Indian police and investigation officers be honoured in a country where politics takes predominance over propriety.

The country has lost a truly brave son.

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