21 May 1991: Rajiv Gandhi, former Indian PM, was assassinated

“ … May 21, 1991 witnessed a terrible happening -- explosion of human bomb, an unprecedented event in Sriperambudur (Tamil Nadu) at 10:20 p.m. -- which resulted in extirpation of a National leader, a former Prime Minister of India, Shri Rajiv Gandhi …”

~ excerpt from the Supreme Court Judgement of 1998, against the conspirators of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, verdict given by Justice Syed Shah Mohammed Quadri and team.

Rajiv Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of India, while conducting an election campaign in Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu was assassinated by a suicide bomber on 21 May 1991. He was 46 years of age. Along with him, the bombing also took the lives of 18 other citizens and seriously injured 43. This tragedy was blamed on the members of the Sri Lankan militant organization, LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam). Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination shocked the country and the world, and “caused a severe blow to the democratic process” of India.

Brief about Rajiv Gandhi

Born on 20 August 1944, Rajiv Gandhi hailed from a hard-core political family. Both, his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, and mother Indira Gandhi held the Prime Minister’s office for several terms. Close associates believed that Rajiv Gandhi would also walk on his ancestors’ footsteps someday. Although, this was not what Rajiv planned for his life. After completing his education abroad, he married an Italian woman, Maino, who later came to be called Sonia. On returning home, he started helping his mother, working alongside Congress Party members. He is believed to have been reluctant in taking higher positions in the party, but after his brother, Sanjay Gandhi’s death, the pressure of joining mainstream politics increased.

Rajiv Gandhi’s prime minister-ship was abrupt and he had to take his mother’s position after her assassination. Initially regarded as a young and inexperienced politician, Rajiv managed to make some strides in the development of the country. He although, faced various riots and disturbances in the country, and was criticised for a number of decisions and financial transactions, like the one relating to the Bofors weapons. Rajiv Gandhi is best remembered for the technological advances in India and improving its bilateral relations with various countries of the United Nations.

Events Leading to the Assassination

Among the controversies clouding over Rajiv Gandhi, his decision to get involved in the conflict in Sri Lanka against the LTTE, was considered the ‘knell’ on his life. Rajiv Gandhi, in an interview in 1990, had announced that if he took over the government he would send the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to “disarm the LTTE.” This is believed to have prompted the LTTE leader, Prabhakaran, to find a way to stop Rajiv to come into power. Then again, there are evidences that suggest that planning for his assassination was in process since 1987. According to the Jain Commission Report, a number of other people and organisations were accused of involvement in the assassination; chief among them was spiritual advisor to P V Narasimha Rao, Chandraswami. This report was although unheeded by the CBI and the court.

Even though being warned multiple times about a danger to his life, Rajiv chose not to pay attention to them. His main aim was to campaign for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections where he was the prime ministerial candidate. The assassinators are believed to have taken advantage of this fact. Their basic plan was to strike Rajiv Gandhi before he became the Prime Minister, and when he had “security detail like that of an opposition leader.” The prime accused, Sivarasan and team, were accused and sentenced by the Supreme Court to have carefully planned the brutal assassination.

On the evening of 21 May 1991, Rajiv Gandhi set foot in Sriperumbudur, located near Chennai, to meet the people and participate in the rally in a school ground. He was greeted by several adoring locals and children in the rally area. He was garlanded by many while he walked towards the stage. One of the women, later identified as Dhanu, came close to him to greet and garland him. As she bent down to touch Rajiv’s feet, she pulled the trigger around her waist that detonated the RDX bomb she was wearing below her dress. Instantly, the explosive blew up mutilating the woman, Rajiv Gandhi and many others standing close by. A local cameraman who was filming the campaign also died, but he left the whole incident on film.


The death of Rajiv Gandhi shook the entire country. Initially there were several speculations as to who could have done something so heinous. The CBI was ordered to investigate the case. A special investigation team was organised. A commission was also set up. Several people were arrested and questioned.

There was also upheaval in the political front. Soon after Rajiv Gandhi’s death, P V Narasimha Rao was made the Prime Minister. In 1998, Sonia Gandhi took charge as the Congress Party President. As per the ongoing investigations, political supports changed, for instance when the Jain Commission accused Tamil Nadu political leader, Karunanidhi, Congress Party withdrew their support from his party in 1998.

Supreme Court Verdict and Later Changes

Rajiv Gandhi’s murder trial was conducted under the TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities) Act, in which the verdict was usually given on insufficient evidence in view of the terrorism angle. The most prominent form of evidence was considered to be the confessions of the accused. Therefore in the initial verdict by the Madras High Court, the 26 convicts  were charged as guilty with death penalty, with regard to the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. This verdict was challenged in the Supreme Court.

A special court of the Supreme Court presided over the case. Consequently, in 1998, the Supreme Court sentenced only four accused with the death penalty – Nalini, Sivarasan aka Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan. Other 25 accused were sentenced to life imprisonment. Later, Nalini’s sentence was also commuted to life imprisonment.

After the death penalty was sentenced, the condemned sent mercy pleas to the President’s office, which was kept pending for 11 years, after which the pleas were rejected. The hanging, scheduled to take place in September 2011, had to be stayed due to no answer from the President. Eventually Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan’s sentences were also commuted to life imprisonment.

According to colleagues and friends, Rajiv Gandhi was a warm hearted and friendly person and he did not deserve the brutal death. His name has been used in several hospitals and institutions to keep his memory alive.


Also on this day:

1960 – Mohanlal, South-Indian actor and producer, was born

1976 – Aditi Gowitrikar, Mrs. World 2001, was born


Supreme Court Judgement of 1998 

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